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Falling Into Orbit

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The quiet crawled beneath Ochako’s skin and made her feel like it was stretched too tight and itchy. A cloud of wrongness hung over everything and she’d always hated that feeling - the one where something in her universe wasn’t right and there was nothing she could do about it. Usually it was because she didn’t know how to help, or wasn’t capable of it, and usually she ended up trying to do whatever she could anyway. She was a largely uncomplicated person, and a realist; while she always cultivated an unwavering sense of hope that led people to assume she was an optimist, she knew problems usually didn’t just solve themselves. Uraraka Ochako was a fixer, not one to shy away from helping where she could because it was hard or uncomfortable.

Except this time.

No one in the common area was bothering to be subtle, curious stares and murmured whispers doing nothing to mask the source of the tension clinging to everyone milling about before the start of class. The obvious and unwavering attention, even if it wasn’t on her, left Ochako feeling exposed anyway. She didn’t let herself think about why, instead swallowing down the urge to do something to break the spell and the tiny curl of guilt in her belly over her cowardly inaction. She wanted to run - well, avert her eyes and make her way to class in a determined, uninterrupted, yet reasonable pace - but she was just as captivated as the rest of her classmates, standing on the edge of the crowd, rooted in place and gripping her books tightly enough for her fingers to go numb.

Hatsume Mei stood in the middle of all of it, an oddly bright-pink eye in this oddly passive-aggressive storm. There was one tiny, almost invisible, little tremor that trembled through her hand; for a second the collective mass of students held their breath and trembled with her, waiting to see if she would break, crumble beneath their pressure. Then those shaking fingers clenched into a fist, her chin rose with a defiant tilt, and a smile that held a shadow of her normal self-satisfied arrogance ghosted over her lips. Her mere presence was a challenge. She dared any of them to say or do something, or for those quiet snatches of conversation to get just a little louder; she dared them to give her something to respond to directly.

Ochako let out a breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding. She wondered if everyone else had been similarly unaware they were waiting for a cue to exhale. Or maybe it was only her that had been waiting for Hatsume’s permission to move past that weird feeling of limbo they were all caught in. That thought sent heat washing over her cheeks, embarrassed at the way she’d let herself be drawn into making a spectacle of Hatsume just like her other classmates. Honestly, this was Hatsume’s business, and should have been allowed to remain her business; it didn’t concern Ochako at all. There was no reason at all for her to care. There was no reason at all for breathing to feel a little easier now that she knew Hatsume didn’t plan to deny the rumors.

”Did you hear…”

”...saw them kissing.”

”...an older girl. From another school is what I heard…”

There were all sorts of variations to the story Ochako had been hearing all morning, many of the details and embellishments changing with every telling. None of the gleeful whispers had been terribly unkind - beyond, of course, the salacious enjoyment of someone else’s public humiliation inherent in all gossip - all of them were just curious. Wondering. Waiting. No one was really reacting to the news. They just spread it around like wildfire while they waited for someone else to show them how they should be reacting.

If she were a braver person, Ochako would call out to the friends she could see in the crowd of students. She’d smile and wave, bounce over to them and chatter easily and animatedly about absolutely nothing of substance the way she did every morning. She’d dispel some of this awful tension by acting completely unaffected, all her actions shouting “move along, nothing to see here folks, nothing at all has changed, this is no big deal” with conviction.

Only, one particularly insidious whisper she’d heard her classmates repeat often this morning stuck in her mind like cobwebs in a shadowed corner. ”...likes girls.” Everything had changed, and it did indeed feel like a very big deal. Ochako really couldn’t blame the other students for being too stunned to know what to think about it. Not when she didn’t know what to do with herself either. It was completely normal to be off-balance and unsure when something totally knocked your worldview off its axis.

“Hatsume!”

Iida’s shout rang out across the courtyard, urgent and slightly panicked sounding - although that wasn’t really all that unusual for Iida. He rushed to Hatsume’s side, not using his quirk, but still faster than anyone had any right to move this early in the morning. He shoved a perfectly aligned and paperclipped stack of papers at her chest, little sticky tabs of various colors peeking out one side marking several of the pages. It was still quiet enough around them for his words to be heard clearly when he continued in a rush, “I apologize for being tardy in getting these notes to you; I know your report on this project is due today. I was devising a system for organizing my findings in order of relevance to your assignment parameters and lost track of time.”

Hatsume took the proffered papers slowly, held them almost tenderly, but the slight curve of her smile was now less goading, and her eyes shone brightly with emotion. She seemed to shake herself out of it quickly though, lifting one hand to smack Iida’s shoulder in what could have been playfulness or overexcitement. “Well my baby’s good enough to ace this assignment without them, but having feedback from someone who could actually field test it with their quirk will only help!”

The buzz of conversation resuming around them drowned out whatever Iida said in response, but hands now free of their burden, his arms sliced through the air in choppy gestures that punctuated whatever it was.

“Bro!” Kirishima called out over the din. “How come you never color-code the notes you give me when you look over my assignments?” he asked while jogging up to the pair still at the center of everyone’s attention, a playful whine in his tone. Everything about his mannerisms and expression was a study in casual, casual, casual.

Quickly scanning her admittedly somewhat fogged-up memories of the morning so far, Ochako couldn’t remember if she’d seen Kirishima outside of their dorm yet. She wondered if he’d been lurking in the background, mixed with the rest of the crowd, just waiting for an opportunity to insert himself. Or maybe he’d been waiting for someone else to make the first move. Or maybe he’d simply just arrived. Maybe he was faking all that casualness. Or maybe he really did feel that strongly about Iida showing favoritism through color-coded corrections. He could have no idea what was going on at all; what if he hadn’t heard any of the gossip? Was this an innocent conversation or a show of support? Ochako didn’t know and her stomach rolled over like she’d been overusing her quirk when she realized she’d never be able to suss out his motivations. She wondered why it felt so vital to figure them out.

In response to Kirishima’s loud complaint, Iida ducked his head and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose in the little move he always used when he wanted to hide how pleased he was about something. “Because the only color needed for the frankly alarming amount of grammar corrections on your reports is red.”

Kirishima made a wounded noise and opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by another enthusiastic cry of, “bro!” and Tetsutetsu slinging a friendly arm over his shoulders.

The bubble popped. All the weird tension bled out of everyone watching and the rest of what the little huddle of four talked about was lost to the noise and movement of everyone returning to going about their morning as usual, pretending like nothing at all had happened and they weren’t all still thinking about it. Ochako shuffled along with them in the direction of class, a smile plastered on her face like she’d already moved on too. She’d forgotten nothing though, her brain chanting likes girls, likes girls, likes girls, Hatsume Mei LIKES GIRLS rhythmically and an odd warmth in her chest when she thought about the way all three boys had fallen into step with Hatsume, appearing intent on walking her to class like the oddest of honor guards. At least her questions about motivations appeared to be settled.

By the time she made it her desk, Ochako still hadn’t figured out why she couldn’t let it go. None of this really had anything to do with her at all, so why was it the only think she could think about?

***

“It’s kind of sad though, isn’t it?” There wasn’t any disapproval in Mina’s tone, only genuine sympathy. Or maybe pity.

Though she kind of wanted to see what expression was on Mina’s face, Ochako kept her back to the rest of the 1-A girls scattered around Tooru’s room. She continued to paw through their joint collection of nail polishes, pretending that selecting a color was a far more serious decision than it was while she listened intently to the conversation going on around her. This was the subject of every conversation since the rumors about Hatsume, it seemed like, and even though no one else seemed to be able to let it go and quit talking about it, Ochako was weirdly reluctant to let anyone see how interested she was in the topic.

“How do you mean?” Tooru’s question seemed benign enough, but there was a slight edge to her voice and the brush loaded with lime green polish hovered in mid air when she paused to wait for an answer.

Looking up from her studious application of a metallic aqua shade to her toenails, Mina seemed to realize that her question had sparked a ripple of unease among her friends. She shrugged easily. “Like, she kind of can’t date anyone from our school. There aren’t any other girls that like girls at UA. Or well, none that we know of, so she probably wouldn’t know any either. I would not want to stay single for all of high school.”

Thoughtful looks replaced the cautious ones on all the girls’ faces and silence descended as they all contemplated three whole years of not dating. The only sound in the room was the click of the polish bottles knocking together as Ochako continued to use searching through them as an excuse not to look at her friends for more than a few seconds at a time.

Momo was the first to speak up. “But even if if there were choices for her, how do you even go about dating a girl? How would you even pick one you liked to begin with?” Genuine confusion laced her voice and shaped her expression.

Kyouka snorted and rolled her eyes. “Same way you pick out a boy, I imagine.”

“Not likely,” Tooru shot back, making it sound dirty.

All six of them dissolved into giggles for a handful of seconds, Tooru’s risque talk feeling familiar. Even Ochako laughed and felt comfortable enough to share amused looks with her friends.

“Maybe you have to think about it like how boys pick girls,” Tsuyu spoke up, contributing to the conversation for the first time.

In unison, Mina and Tooru chorused, “Momo wins,” Mina looking pointedly in the direction of Momo’s chest to punctuate the thought.

Turning bright red, Momo sputtered, “what? No!”

“Ew, no.” Kyouka’s nose wrinkled up like she’d smelled something foul. “I refuse to think like a boy for any reason. They’re too dumb.” Her lip curled in distaste and she shuddered in a way that made her hair catch the light and look extra silky; it was a strange dichotomy between her harsh expression and her soft-looking hair.

Tooru managed to keep the conversation going around her snickers. “But seriously, what makes a girl attractive to another girl?”

This was a weird conversation. Ochako couldn’t be the only one that thought this was weird right? She recognized though that the revelation of Hatsume’s sexuality had altered everyone’s worldview, and that her friends probably just needed to talk through and process their thoughts and opinions on things a bit. She felt a little of that need herself. But she couldn’t imagine why any of them needed to talk about this.

Distinctly unimpressed, Kyouka gave Tooru a flat stare. “I was being serious earlier. It’s probably the same kinds of stuff that makes boys attractive. Nice smiles, pretty eyes, in good shape. Something about them makes you want to be around them - but also kiss them sometimes too.”

“Well then, who would you pick? Who would you go out with if you could have your choice of anyone at UA?” Mina asked with something like a grin wobbling on her face, like she didn’t know if she was allowed to joke about this or not.

Ochako froze; she couldn’t look at any of them right now. She could barely hear anything over the pounding of her heart. Instinctively, she knew the other girls would latch onto that question and it would be turned on her. Thinking about it seriously would be weird; refusing to answer would look even weirder. The thought of having to answer that question felt a little like impending doom. She wasn’t going to examine why.

Rather than look put on the spot by Mina’s question, Kyouka capped the bottle of polish she’d been using and pushed herself to her feet. “Mm. Momo probably.” She shrugged like it wasn’t something that required a lot of thought or cost her anything to admit. “She’s so... together, right? She’d probably be a really attentive and caring girlfriend.” She explained it with that same casual ease she seemed to do most things with.

“Yeah, probably,” Tsuyu agreed after a second or two of thought. “Momo?” There was no doubt that she was asking for Momo’s choice rather than her thoughts on Kyouka’s pick.

A subtle blush spread over Momo’s cheeks, but something about the tilt of her mouth looked shyly pleased rather than embarrassed or weirded out. It took her slightly longer to come up with an answer, but not by much. “Kyouka would probably have fun and interesting date ideas. Things I’d never think of on my own.”

Ochako wondered if the mood in the room felt like it had changed to anyone else after Momo’s comments. Was she the only one wondering if there was any hidden meaning in either of those answers?

In the conversational lull that followed, Kyouka shuffled up next to Ochako and dropped a bottle of polish in a dark purple color, a shade so deep it might look black in the right lighting, into the basket Ochako was still rummaging through. She made a clicking noise with her tongue and stuck one hand into the pile of bottles as well. After about thirty seconds she made another soft noise and pulled a bottle out. She leaned closer to Ochako and held the bottle out. “This is one of mine; try it. Too sparkly for me, but it’d probably be pretty on you.”

Swallowing thickly, Ochako took the bottle, barely even glancing at the color before murmuring “thanks,” softly. Behind them, the other girls were now throwing out ideas for fun dates, not paying attention to them at all. It still felt like she needed to get out of there before anyone noticed them. She turned away from Kyouka and headed for the pillow she’d been sitting on earlier, not wanting the other girl to see her blushing over a friend talking about her being pretty. The heat she could feel in her cheeks made her feel silly and she didn’t like looking childish in front of any of these girls, but especially Kyouka who was always so cool and unruffled by everything. Ochako didn’t know what she was doing with herself right now and she had the urge to just hide from everyone until she got herself sorted out.

“What about you Mina?” Tooru asked, bringing their conversation back to the original topic. “If it was girls for you which one would you ask out so you didn’t spend all of high school single?”

With no hesitation whatsoever, Mina cheerfully answered, “Hatsume, definitely.” She grinned wide when they all just sort of looked at her. “I have a thing for pink.”

Laughter bubbled up out of all the other girls, and Ochako managed to push out a few soft giggles despite the vague sense of unease she still felt. She tucked her knees up to her chest, getting in position to start painting her toenails, finally looking at the color she’d been handed. It was a bright purple shade with big chunks of glitter in the same color Kyouka had picked for herself. Ochako noticed that the packaging looked similar to the bottle Kyouka had dropped back in the basket and wondered if the two had been part of a set or something.

“Okay then, who’d be at the top of your list, Tsuyu?” Momo asked, seeming to be more comfortable with the conversation the longer it went on.

“Mina,” Tsuyu answered without much of a pause and offering no further explanation. Nobody seemed to think it was odd for Tsuyu not to elaborate, accepting her answer without any follow up questions.

“Ochako?” Mina asked, wiggling her toes, obviously growing impatient with waiting for them to dry now that she’d finished the actual painting.

She’d known the question was coming eventually, and she’d already thought of an answer that wouldn’t look weird. The rest of the girls seemed to just be answering with who they felt closest to or thought was the prettiest. They all knew Tsuyu was Ochako’s closest girl friend even if she’d never say so out loud and risk hurt feelings; Tsuyu would be a safe answer that not a single one would scrutinize that closely. Ochako stared at the sparkly purple she’d begun applying carefully to her toenails. “Kyouka,” she answered before she could think better of it.

Stomach dropping out and feeling like she needed to backtrack, or explain before they started asking questions, she blurted “she’s probably the coolest person in our class, boy or girl, so…” The buzzing in her ears was the only thing she could still hear when the sentence died at the end.

Mina was nodding in agreement before Ochako was even done speaking. “Kyouka’s definitely the coolest.”

Ochako was still feeling somewhat embarrassed, but she managed to scrape up enough daring to let her eyes flicker up to look at Kyouka where she was lounging on Tooru’s bed. Kyouka wasn’t looking at Ochako, or anyone really, but there was a soft smile lifting the corners of her mouth. Ochako looked away quickly, not wanting to make it weird by staring.

“Okay Tooru, you’re the only one left. Hit us with it,” Tsuyu said from her spot against the far wall.

Tooru giggled a little and actually had to pause in applying her polish for a few seconds while her body shook with them. “Midnight-sensei. Gotta get my grades up somehow.”

Everyone in the room had mentally braced themselves for Tooru’s answer; they had not been ready. There was a beat or two of silence and then all of them howled with laughter.

“Oh my god, that is terrifying,” Mina cackled.

Smiling widely, Tsuyu added, “she’d eat you alive.”

“She’d have to find me first,” Tooru quipped back with confidence, and distressingly, not sounding enough like she’d mind that sort of treatment. “I’ve stripped down to nothing to escape less dangerous situations.” The sleeves of her shirt rose and fell in mid air with her shrug.

The conversation diverted to sharing stories of the weirdest or most embarrassing times they’d used their quirks, all talk of liking girls and which ones were worth taking out on dates forgotten. Or at least the other girls seemed to have forgotten it. Ochako’s brain wasn’t letting her forget the way she’d been planning to say Tsuyu the whole time and Kyouka had been the name that slipped out instead. Or the fact that none of the girls had said her name and she couldn’t figure out how she felt about that. She’d been doing everything she could to avoid notice during the discussion; it was dumb to be disappointed her name hadn’t come up, right?

***

Ochako had long suspected that she might feel attraction differently than other girls. She heard them talking about boys they liked, boys they found hot, and the conversation always revolved around their muscles or their eyes or the way they grinned and flirted. And yeah, there were boys that made her stop and go oh wow because they were just so overwhelmingly beautiful, but there were girls that did that to her too. Ochako had eyes, so she noticed pretty people - noticed them getting noticed by other people, sometimes noticed them noticing her - and while sometimes those attractive people made heat pulse low in her belly, that wasn’t attraction. Seeing someone good-looking or being charmed by their flirtations didn’t make her want them.

Crushes, on the other hand, seemed to sneak up on her. There’d be a boy that caught her attention for some reason, and then there’d be weeks of breathless excitement and the squirming need to spend as much time with them as possible, and then there’d be that lightning strike of realization. Oh… she’d think, some wild mix of surprise and understanding, I like him. The flash in the pan type desire that seemed to fuel attraction in other people just didn’t work like that with her. She never knew she was into someone until she found herself making excuses to be around them.

Other girls never seemed to pick up that she was any different, and they never looked at her like she was strange or they didn’t understand any time the subject of crushes came up. Ochako felt like the difference was glaringly obvious, as good as spelled out in flashing neon. She just wasn’t sure what to do with the awareness. She didn’t like to think about how much any of it mattered or how different she might actually be.

***

It was like they were an island unto themselves. Every day following the morning Hatsume was outed to the entire school, she and Iida had eaten lunch together. The two of them would sit across from each other, sometimes talking animatedly together, sometimes appearing to share quieter, more serious conversations, and sometimes they simply ate silently, comfortably occupying the same space together without feeling the need to fill the silence between them. The three or four seats next to them in every direction remained empty as a general rule, acting as a buffer between them and the rest of the student body. Had this started a few months ago there probably would have been rumors that they were dating; their ease with each other could have looked intimate to an outside observer. In light of the revelations about Mei’s sexuality, Ochako could only see it as supportive.

Thankfully, Iida wasn’t the only one Ochako ever saw at Hatsume’s table; there wasn’t any need to worry that he was her only friend now. Sometimes Kirishima and/or Tetsutetsu joined them. There was also a boy Ochako thought was also in one of the support classes but didn’t know by name that had sat next to Hatsume once or twice. On one memorable occasion, Iida had arrived to lunch late, he and Momo staying behind to discuss the logistics of some upcoming training with Aizawa-sensei. Tokoyami had sat in Iida’s usual seat in front of Hatsume without a word and proceeded to sit quietly like he was conducting some silent vigil. Upon Iida’s tardy arrival, Tokoyami had slid one seat over, but didn’t leave. He hadn’t spoken for the entirety of the lunch period and he’d not joined them again, yet his message had been crystal clear.

Probably some others had filtered through a time or two as well that Ochako just wasn’t thinking of right now, so it wasn’t like Iida was Hatsume’s only friend. It wasn’t like he was the only person Ochako ever saw talking to Hatsume now. It wasn’t always just them on their island of comfortable friendship.

But it usually was. And in all the people who had joined them, it was never any girls. Ochako didn’t know if that was out of fear or bigotry or some other purposeful rejection of Hatsume, or if their female classmates were just feeling unsure about how to move forward. Maybe they felt like friendship with Hatsume had to be different now, that there would be different rules, now that they knew there was a possibility of attraction happening. Maybe they didn’t know if it was possible to navigate a friendship like that without misstepping, or they weren’t sure if it would be worth the effort.

For all the support Hatsume had received, none of it had been female. That knowledge struck Ochako as incredibly sad, but it also lit a fire of determination in her. She didn’t let herself examine why it affected her this deeply too closely.

***

“May I join you?” Both of them swung their attention over to Ochako so quickly it made her grip the edges of her tray just a little tighter while she withstood the weight of their stares, a queasy feeling in her belly. This felt like being weighed, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d be found wanting at the end of the evaluation. She’d charged into this fray without giving much thought to the consequences, and now she was regretting it. What if she’d stepped over some unseen boundary? She and Hatsume were barely acquaintances, certainly not friends; what if she didn’t want Ochako’s help?

Almost lazily, Hatsume’s gaze flickered over Ochako’s face, searching for something she eventually seemed to find. “Sure.” The tone of her voice nor the expression on her face gave away anything at all about how she truly felt about the addition.

Like he’d just been waiting to hear Hatsume’s thoughts on the matter, Iida perked up and smiled winningly at Ochako. “We would be pleased to have your company, Uraraka.” His excitement seemed next-level even for Iida.

Ochako let out a slightly shaky breath and simply nodded in thanks at the invitation; she didn’t trust her voice not to betray her relief. Although now that reaction seemed silly; she couldn’t even pinpoint exactly what she’d even been afraid would happen. She slid into the empty seat next to Iida across the table from Hatsume, hoping neither of them could see her unease. Past experience with both of them indicated that neither of them were great at picking up awkwardness from non-verbal cues. Either that or they were content to ignore it and just barrel past it with enthusiasm, so she was probably in the clear.

With unfailing politeness, Iida waited until Ochako was settled in her seat before continuing, clearly making an effort to draw her into the conversation. “Hatsume and I were just discussing the Renegade Robots movie series.”

“Oh yeah? I don’t think I’ve seen any of them,” Ochako offered with a slightly apologetic smile. She appreciated Iida’s attempt to make her feel less like she was intruding on something and she hoped her lack of knowledge about the movies didn’t derail their conversation. The whole point of this was to add on to what Iida had been building during these lunches with Hatsume, not to try to build something from scratch.

Iida nodded gravely, far more serious about the topic than any less intense person could probably manage. Sometimes it seemed like he had a secondary quirk that packed a sense of gravitas and import to everything he did. “Hatsume is trying to convince me to watch the latest installment. Apparently I have a passing resemblance to one of the main characters.”

That made Ochako look across the table at Hatsume. She’d heard of the campy horror-action movies, of course, but couldn’t recall any cast members from the latest installment specifically.

The robot, Hatsume mouthed to Ochako, after making sure Iida’s focus was still directed at Ochako. She had her elbow on the table, her chin propped in her hand, and a light of unholy glee shining in her eyes.

Swallowing down a fit of amused laughter, Ochako nodded seriously and did her best not to give away the game. “Oh well in that case Hatsume’s right; you have to watch it.” She turned more fully toward Iida and favored him with a deceptively innocent smile. “Maybe we could watch it together?” She felt in on the joke with Hatsume now; she had an unexpected need to be around when the other girl either revealed the punchline to Iida or continued her good-natured teasing while he remained unaware.

“Definitely,” Hatsume chimed in immediately. The grin tugging at her lips also played at being innocent.

Iida looked between the two of them with deep skepticism baked into his features. “I regret facilitating conversation between the two of you already,” he muttered. It was obvious that he knew he was missing something, but couldn’t figure out what, yet rightly assuming their conspiring was at his expense.

Hatsume smiled brightly and reached over to pat him consolingly on the arm. “I always tell people you’re not as stupid as you look, Tenya.” Her bright gold eyes switched their focus to Ochako and she winked playfully.

Laughter had been building in Ochako’s chest and she’d been stuffing it down, so that she could play along without tipping their hand and ruining Hatsume’s fun. Iida’s open suspicion felt like permission to let it loose, and she’d intended to do just that, and then Hatsume had winked at her, easy and familiar like this was a joke they’d shared for ages and not a couple of minutes. The awful squeaking, nervous-sounding huff that tumbled out of her mouth was the result of guilt curdling all that fizzy amusement in her stomach.

Walking across the cafeteria earlier, Ochako had been thinking about Tokoyami. About how he’d sat here, and made a statement without ever speaking, his mere presence shouting louder than any words could. About how how Ochako hadn’t ever seen him talk to Hatsume at all outside of that one event. Ochako had asked, “may I join you?” with those same intentions. She’d planned to sit here and make a statement of her own, ”see girls, there’s nothing wrong with being her friend,” while subconsciously never having any real intention to actually become Hatsume’s friend.

What an awful, hypocritical plan that had been. Ochako had been thinking about how Hatsume needed support - like now there were teams and you were either for or against - about how people were making statements and choosing sides and casting unspoken votes. She’d sat next to Iida thinking only about showing her support and how maybe doing so would encourage some of the other girls in her class to start doing so since they’d so far been reluctant to come down on either side. She had thought she could be like Tokoyami - one lunch and she could help fix things without getting her hands dirty at all. She hadn’t thought about how thoughtless and self-centered that really was.

This wasn’t some battle, Hatsume had never intended to draw lines and create sides; this was her life and she was simply trying to live it unashamed and unapologetic the way everyone else here was free to. Hatsume didn’t need support - she needed friends. She needed people less concerned about making statements and more concerned about actually being there for her. Iida wasn’t eating lunch with her every day to make a show of it. He simply didn’t want her to be alone. He actually enjoyed her company.

Ochako had sat down playacting at friendship and offering support. Hatsume’s offer of genuine friendship made her ashamed of the way she’d unconsciously planned a bait and switch. But it wasn’t too late to take that offer, and Ochako could redeem herself by not just showing her support, but actually being supportive. Now was not the time to beat herself up for going down the wrong path; she needed to correct her course before she went too far the wrong way.

A slow, teasing smile bloomed on Ochako’s face and she shared it with Hatsume before turning to Iida and letting it slip into more of a smirk instead. “Developing a healthy sense of paranoia about the havok the two of us could wreak in your life might be the safest option, Iida.”

Iida’s expression crumpled into a look of comical alarm, Hatsume aimed a blinding grin at both of them, and Ochako got the feeling she wouldn’t regret trying to become a real friend to Hatsume at all.

***

Ochako liked boys. She’d found it very obvious that she liked boys at a very young age and confident in that knowledge of herself, immediately felt the need to announce that fact to others so they could be just as aware. She was only in the first grade when she’d come home one day and told her parents that she was going to marry Kentarou, a humorous and painfully sweet boy from her class, because Ken-chan was her favorite boy and that’s what girls did right? Girls married their favorite boys so they could spend all their time together instead of going home to separate houses when the school day was done. At that age, the idea of spending more time with her crush had been the only thing that mattered; things like attraction and compatibility and romantic feelings weren’t part of her consciousness yet. Ken-chan had been her favorite and it made her want to spend every minute with him; she’d loved him in her own innocent way.

There’d been other boys that had been her favorite since then, other crushes. Through the years, with the addition of hormones and concepts like arousal, it had only become more obvious that she liked boys. She still only developed feelings for the ones she wanted to be around most - although that had evolved too - but now she had some purely physical reactions to boys as well. The sight of Kirishima’s bare chest, all smooth skin over hard muscle, made her feel overly warm and her cheeks flush. She couldn’t help but notice how big Shoji was, how much difference there was in size between them. It made arousal throb low in her belly (and sometimes even lower) whenever she thought about it.

Izuku was both different and the same in a lot of ways. Ochako liked spending time with him, he was sweet and brave and genuine. Even if she hadn’t ended up liking him, she was sure they would have ended up friends anyway. And maybe that’s the way it would have gone if he hadn’t blushed and stuttered and looked at Ochako the way he did - but he had so there was no way her feelings for him could have stayed platonic.

His attention made her feel pretty.

She’d never really been able to figure out if there was anything more to his nerves than his typical anxiety, but in truth it didn’t really matter. It felt like there was something more behind it to Ochako, and that was enough to make her feel feminine and desirable and wanted. It was a revelation.

Natural friendliness and a tendency to be a little bit of a tomboy meant that Ochako never had trouble making friends with boys. She knew she was bubbly and sweet and had heard the word “cute” applied to her many times in the past. But boys never wanted cute; they wanted sexy. The other girls in her class could be jealous sometimes of how easily she could get “close” to certain boys. They wouldn’t have been if they’d understood that those boys would never see Ochako like that. All of them treated her either like she was “one of the guys” or like a little sister - she’d never be the kind of girl that caught male attention when she walked in a room. It had always felt like as a girl - as a developing woman - she was missing something.

Then came Izuku with his awkward mumbling and his blushes. With the way he seemed more nervous around her than just about anyone other than Bakugou. With his shy smiles and his choosing Deku as his hero name because of her. Something about her had certainly caught his attention, and even if it wasn’t quite like that for him, he was still the first boy to ever make Ochako feel like she didn’t need anything else at all to be attractive.

With the weight of that powerful surge of confidence behind them, she was powerless to keep her feelings for him from blossoming into something romantic. Her crush had been swift and powerful and - bizarrely - enjoyable. Liking Izuku didn’t so much feel like pining as it did preening. After a few months the dizzying rush had settled a little bit and Ochako was beginning to suspect that she maybe liked his attention more than she actually liked him. Although she did like him. He was sweet and brave and smart. He had nicely shaped shoulders and adorable freckles. She’d had a dream once about putting her hands on those shoulders to feel the strength of them when she leaned in to ask if she could see just how much of his skin those freckles covered. Waking from that dream she’d felt sticky and kind of achy between her legs.

So she definitely liked Izuku at least a little. She definitely liked boys in general. So the way she couldn’t seem to escape all the conversations her classmates were having recently about liking girls didn’t matter. The fact that her heart raced sometimes when Mina smiled at her a certain way, or she felt absurdly nervous for some reason when Momo wore a low-cut top didn’t matter at all. It didn’t matter that lately she couldn’t seem to tear her gaze away from the soft-looking, pale skin of Kyouka’s thighs when she wore skirts and pyjama shorts. It didn’t matter; she wasn’t gay. She couldn’t be.

Because Ochako liked boys.

***

Iida wasn’t sitting at the table with Hatsume today; Ochako hesitated for a few seconds before setting her tray in the space across from the other girl and dropping into the seat. She was being silly. It wasn’t weird for her to sit here without Iida at all, even if he’d always been there for their previous interactions to smooth out any rough patches if needed. She flashed Hatsume a smile in greeting, hoping it wasn’t as tentative around the edges at it kind of felt.

For her part, Hatsume seemed to take Ochako’s presence in stride and wasn’t timid at all about launching straight into conversation. She leaned forward in that somewhat disconcerting way she had sometimes of trying to get as close to the person she was talking to as physically possible, almost putting her chest in her lunch. “Tenya’s still not talking to me after that last one,” she sulked with a mixture of petulance and genuine amusement. Something about her inflection and the lack of explanation made it seem like she and Ochako were sharing an inside joke; like they were friends.

A pleased warmth spread slowly through Ochako’s chest and it threatened to stretch her mouth into an eager smile, but she reigned in the impulse to maintain the tone of the joke. She wasn’t sure exactly what happened the day before yesterday since Iida still refused to give them details, but Ochako had been in the common room when he’d returned to the dorm and she’d seen the aftermath. Their normally dignified class rep had stalked in the door looking positively murderous, covered in an unidentified liquid that was tinted slightly pink and looked somewhat gelatinous, both his skin and clothing were streaked with mud and grass stains, and one sleeve of his T-shirt appeared to be singed. A clump of grass had been stuck in his hair. Kaminari, either a brave soul or a moron, had blurted, “whoa! What happened to you?” Iida muttered, “Hatsume,” darkly; the little tuft of grass quivered with the force of his rage. He’d stalked from the room without offering any further explanation, though to be fair, none of them had really needed more than that to get the picture anyway. Ochako raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Are you surprised?”

Snickering openly now, Hatsume shook her head. “No.” Her amusement dimmed a little and she continued, “he’s never stayed mad at me this long before.”

Ochako swallowed; she wasn’t sure how to offer comfort to this person she still didn’t know well, who she’d been concerned may not even want her around without Iida there too only minutes ago, and who seemed to be so different from herself and her other friends. “He’ll come around.” What she really meant was “he won’t leave you,” but wasn’t sure quite how to say that. If nothing else, Iida had certainly proven that one lunch at a time over the last few weeks.

The soft look that washed over Hatsume’s face said she might have heard Ochako’s unspoken words anyway. “I know. He’s a good guy.”

Ochako smiled and nodded. “He really is.”

They lapsed into silence then, both of them turning their attention to their lunch, but it felt comfortable - natural. Ochako was glad she hadn’t done more than hesitate before joining Mei and she was really glad Mei didn’t have to eat alone.

***

“That goof.” Hatsume was looking down at her phone, a fondly exasperated smile curving her lips.

It was easy enough to guess who she was talking to and what they’d said. “Iida’s not coming?”

Hatsume looked at Ochako and rolled her eyes. “Nope. Said he’s going to the library for something. He’s being kind of cagey about it, but I think it’s probably just a case of Tenya being Tenya this time. No cause for alarm.”

“You know…” Ochako had started speaking before she really gave any thought to what she was about to ask. She let her words die in her throat once she processed just how rude she was about to be. It was something she’d wondered about, sure, and Iida was definitely an easy topic to fall back on since he was still really the only connection between them. But Ochako was hoping that would change, that they’d forge connections and in-jokes and increasing levels of comfort of their own. Interrogating the other girl about the way she treated their mutual friend probably wasn’t the best way to go about doing that.

A curious look was tossed over at her from Hatsume’s side of the table. “What?”

Face hot with mortification, Ochako shook her head and let her gaze drop to the table. Her lunch didn’t require nearly the amount of intense study she was giving it. “Nevermind.”

“No it’s cool. I’m pretty sure I know what you’re gonna say, and it’s not like you’re the only one thinking it.” Hatsume assured, easily, like she actually meant it. She huffed a quick, sharp laugh. “Me and Tenya are weird.”

It was more than just a reassurance that Ochako hadn’t overstepped any boundaries, it was an invitation to continue the conversation, to ask. Ochako wanted to keep going, to poke more at the thing she still didn’t quite understand, but she still felt awkward about it. She picked up her chopsticks even though she made no move to actually use them, just to give her fingers something to do for the moment. “It did seem like an odd friendship at first, and for a little while I was worried- Well, the two of you just seemed to be such an unusual fit from far away. But now that I’ve seen it up close it makes a lot more sense.”

With a blank face, Hatsume studied her for a long moment - seriously, carefully. “You were worried I bullied him into being my friend.” It was blunt and unapologetic, dropped into the conversation as a statement of fact, but somehow not aggressively. Strangely, there was no accusation or defensiveness in the words.

Deciding to mimic Mei’s frankness about the topic, Ochako shrugged. “You bullied him into showing off your designs at the Sports Festival.”

“I did,” Hatsume acknowledged easily; there was no defensiveness or apology there either. “I’m sure all Tenya’s friends were worried about him being bullied. For a hero the boy is surprisingly soft-hearted. He lets himself get bullied into things way too easily sometimes.”

Ochako nodded. “Sometimes, yeah.” She paused for only a split second before continuing. “But I was wrong about this time. It’s clear he cares about you a lot and that you care about him too.”

Hatsume shifted in her seat, looking pleased by Ochako’s words, but not surprised. “He’s a good friend. Maybe the only one I really have at the moment.”

Nervous and awkward again, Ochako looked at the lunch in front of her she still hadn’t touched. Softly, she offered, “Iida’s a high standard to live up to as far as friends go, so don’t expect that level from me, but I think we’re giving it a good shot here so far. You could add me to that list if you wanted.” She chanced looking up at Hatsume through her eyelashes to gauge her reaction to that.

“Yeah?” A cautious, and kind of hopeful smile lifted the corners of Hatume’s mouth. “Alright then.”

A hesitantly excited smile of her own wobbled on Ochako’s lips before firming into something more openly friendly. Trying to dispel some of the lingering seriousness, she waved the hand not holding her chopsticks and joked, “just. Don’t ever tell Iida about this conversation, okay? He’ll probably come up with some sort of friendship quality metric, and there’ll be a spreadsheet that tracks my performance against his, possibly a graph, and it’ll just be a mess.”

Hatsume’s answering laughter was bright and unrestrained and made Ochako feel like she’d just won something very important when she finally started in on her neglected lunch.

***

Weariness infused in her bones, making her feel heavy like she’d somehow figured out a way to reverse her quirk, Ochako dropped into her usual seat across from Hatsume. Behind her, she could sense Iida doing the same, but she didn’t have the energy to look and see if he did it with any more grace or dignity. How had she ever thought becoming a hero was anything like a good idea?

“How’d the test go?” Hatsume regarded them both with a mix of sympathy and amusement that was just a little too heavy on the amusement to sound genuinely concerned.

In response, Iida dropped his head to the table and offered nothing besides a pitiful whimper.

Ochako snorted and both girls were content to ignore him for the moment. “I feel pretty good about it. I definitely didn’t ace it, but I don’t think I failed either.”

Hatsume’s face lit up. “Awesome. Way to go girl!” She sounded sincere and maybe even a little proud.

Suddenly feeling shy for some reason, Ochako looked away. “Thanks. And uh, thanks for going over my notes with me yesterday. I think it really helped.” It had definitely helped, and was probably the only reason she’d passed the written portion, but she wasn’t ever going to say something like that out loud.

“Any time,” Hatsume promised easily.

Ochako still wasn’t looking at Hatsume, but even so the warmth and affection in her tone could be heard clearly. “Well just let me know when I can return the favor.”

A hum of acknowledgement was the only answer Hatsume gave.

Rolling his forehead against the table, Iida peered at them with puffy, bloodshot eyes, studying them like he was trying to work something out. “I’ve been phased out. The two of you don’t even need me for studying anymore.”

Unsure if that was supposed to be a joke or a legitimate concern from her friend, Ochako struggled for a second to muster a response that would be appropriate for either.

Hatsume beat her to it, scoffing loudly. “Self defense. Studying with you is a contact sport, and now that I’ve got other options I’m not letting you kick my ass til five in the morning the night before big tests anymore.”

Another whimper issued forth from the pathetic lump that used to be the 1-A class rep. It was incomprehensible why he continued to do this to himself. As many times as they’d all heard his presentation on how many hours of sleep were required for optimal brain function, you’d think the boy would take his own advice to heart.

Ochako and Hatsume both rolled their eyes and decided to ignore him for the rest of the lunch period. And if they were both secretly hoping that meant he got a little rest because of it, that was no one else’s business.

***

“Are you feeling okay, Hatsume?” The question was uttered before Ochako had even fully seated herself.

Hatsume’s teasing smirk lacked its usual fire. “You trying to say I look like shit, Uraraka?” She kind of did. Her skin was washed out looking, the dark, puffy circles under her eyes standing out even more with the contrast so that they almost looked like faded bruising. Her unwashed, greasy hair was as limp and droopy as her posture, and the knuckles of her right hand boasted a set of angry-red and raw-looking scrapes that Hatsume didn’t even seem to notice.

Reassured somewhat by the snarky response, Ochako hummed and smiled serenely. “More like you’re waiting for death to take you at any moment, but that works too, I guess.”

The look Hatsume gave her in response to that was probably an attempt at a hard glare, but was in reality as soft and fluffy as a baby kitten. “That’s funny, and if I wasn’t so tired I’d even consider laughing. But I can’t afford to waste the energy.”

Ochako made a noise in response to that, one she wasn’t sure was supposed to be mocking or sympathetic, but it didn’t really matter; she could live with whichever way Mei took it. “Late night?” The question at least was genuinely curious. She knew the answer of course, the signs of exhaustion were obvious, but she was hoping she might prod a reason for it out of the other girl. This was the first time she’d ever seen what looked like the results of an all-nighter on Hatsume.

Nodding feebly, Hatsume looked like it took real effort to elaborate. “Had one of those lightning strike genius ideas and I was afraid of losing it if I slept on it, you know. So I stayed up tinkering in the shop trying to work it out.” She made a vague waving hand gesture like that was supposed to explain all the gaps in her statement. It wasn’t exactly helpful.

“Did you?” Ochako asked, tapping her fingertips on the tabletop lightly. She was wildly curious about the things Hatsume worked on despite all her self-preservation instincts screaming at her not to show that interest around the other girl or it might result in the horror of being exposed to an untested Hatsume Mei original.

“No.” The bitter frustration palpable in that one word was more animation than Hatsume had showed yet.

Ochako waited for more than that for a few beats, until it became clear Hatsume wasn’t going to give her any more explanation than that. She gave her friend a steady, unconcerned smile. “You’ll get it.” She didn’t have to fake any conviction or enthusiasm; she had complete faith in her friend’s abilities so the statement was simply fact.

For a moment, it looked like Hatsume wanted to argue with Ochako on that, looking like she was trying out several responses before she actually opened her mouth. What she ended up going with though was oddly quiet and searching. “What makes you so sure?”

The tired vulnerability of the question, wasn’t something Ochako knew if she was equipped to deal with. But she did know one thing for certain - Hatsume was amazing and something as simple as failure would never beat her. Ochako shrugged easily. “Because you’re you.”

***

Monday afternoon, Hatsume greeted Ochako with a bright smile and the question, “how’d the visit home go?” as soon as she sat down.

Still riding the wave of happiness from the weekend with her parents, Ochako returned Hatsume’s smile with a megawatt grin of her own. “It was awesome. I always forget just how much I miss them until I see them again.” Being able to hug them, and see their faces when they talked, do things with them - it was so much better than regular phone calls could ever be.

Hatsume nodded in understanding. “Yeah, I get it.”

“Are you very close with your parents?” asked with real curiosity.

Hatsume’s smile softened around the edges and she nodded slightly again. “My dad more than my mom. He’s a builder like me, so we spent hours tinkering in the workshop behind the house.”

There was no way to respond to the obvious love and respect coloring Hatsume’s words other than to smile back brightly and prompt her to continue. “That sounds fun.”

Hatsume huffed out a soft laugh, fond and nostalgic sounding. “It was. Until something exploded and Ma yelled at us at least.”

Giggling helplessly, Ochako managed to get out, “these explosions happened a lot I’m guessing?” around her amusement.

Snorting inelegantly, Hatsume sent Ochako a conspiratorial look. “Dad and I once spent six whole months without eyebrows. Every time they’d start to grow back we’d singe them off again.”

This time the fit of uncontrollable giggles from both girls prevented the conversation from continuing for several long minutes.

***

“It was so cheesy. I was building better animatronics than that when I was five.” Frustration and contempt laced every word out of Hatsume’s mouth and she punctuated her opinion at the end with a loud groan.

“I thought it was pretty good,” Ochako offered neutrally.

That only set Hatsume off again after shooting Ochako an incredulous look. “C’mon Uraraka, really? The only thing the robots did were turn in circles and lift their arms. They weren’t intimidating at all.

Okay, that was a fair point. Ochako pursed her lips. “Well no, they weren’t. But I enjoyed the story and the acting was quite good.”

Something flickered in Hatsume’s expression too quickly for Ochako to identify before it was gone. “The heroine was pretty cute.” This was offered carefully but firmly.

It didn’t escape Ochako’s notice that this was likely meant to be a test of some sort. She made a thoughtful face and answered without hesitation. “You think so? I thought the villain’s assistant was prettier.”

A tension Hatsume had been carrying that hadn’t been noticeable until it faded relaxed then and she gestured dismissively with one hand. “Nah, not my type. I don’t like mean girls.”

***

Ochako wasn’t quite sure where they were going, or if there was actually even a plan, but the weather was nice today for the first time in more than a week, so she was content to stroll along aimlessly with her little cluster of friends and take the long way back to their dorm. The lawn looked like it had recently been mowed and the scent of earth and cut grass was strong. There was a breeze ruffling her hair and tickling her skin, and Ochako had no idea what Tsuyu and Kaminari were bickering amicably about up ahead but it didn’t detract from her sense of connectedness to these people and this moment in time.

Slowing her pace just a touch, Mina fell into step with Ochako and reached out to link their arms together as they walked. “I feel like we hardly ever see you anymore, Ochako.”

Frown turning down the corners of her mouth, Ochako looked over at her friend, wondering just what Mina was talking about. She hadn’t really been any more busy than usual and she certainly wasn’t avoiding any of her friends or anything; she hadn’t even been aware Mina felt this way, that there was a potential problem.

Tsuyu abandoned her conversation with Kaminari and turned back toward Mina and Ochako. “We are all literally in the same class and live in the same building.”

“Which is why I think it’s weird we never see her!” Mina shot back with enthusiasm, but no real heat.

Expression blank, Momo gave Ochako a searching look for a few seconds before saying, “she’s been spending all her free time with Hatsume.” The tone of her voice was scrubbed entirely of inflection, giving no clues as to what she thought about that fact.

It was actually kind of shocking to hear Momo say something like that. This wasn’t what Ochako had been expecting at all. Hatsume was well and truly a friend now, and even though that relationship was still new, Ochako really didn’t spend any more time with Hatsume than she did with any of her other friends. Less even, if you didn’t count lunch, which was their most regular interaction. But even that wasn’t something she’d stopped doing with her 1-A classmates in favor of doing with Hatsume. She didn’t eat lunch with Hatsume exclusively, and even before that she’d always sort of rotated where and who she sat with. Outside of lunches together, there’d been a handful of visits to the workshop, a couple of movie nights at the dorm with Iida, and one outing to the theatre in months. “Not all of it,” she answered carefully. She didn’t want to upset her friends and make it seem like she was dismissing their feelings, but she was starting to get a sinking feeling this had more to do with Ochako spending her time with Hatsume rather than any of them feeling abandoned.

As usual, Kaminari failed to pick up on the tension between the girls, although it had been subtle. “Yeah, you still do that terrifying thing you insist on calling ‘sparring’ with Bakugou, and you have your bro-dates at the gym with Kirishima and Tetsutetsu,” he added to the conversation, almost sounding like he was whining. He wrinkled his nose in disgust.

Ochako was grateful for Kaminari’s easy agreement and the potential diversion. She really didn’t look forward to defending her choice to spend time with Hatsume the way she had with a few of her other friends. “The gym time isn’t invitation only; you guys could join us whenever you wanted,” she offered mildly, hoping one of them would take the bait. Planning workouts seemed like a much more enjoyable topic. Suddenly the breeze was just annoying rather than pleasant and she was kind of ready to get back to the dorm.

Kyouka gave a derisive snort, Mina laughed like the invitation had been a joke, and Kaminari gave her a flat look and said, “yeah, no.” The rest of them just ignored it like it hadn’t even been a real offer.

“But you are spending a lot of time with her. Do you eat lunch with her every day?” Tooru asked. She didn’t exactly sound accusing, more curious than anything, but without seeing facial expressions, it was hard to be totally sure.

Ochako shrugged. “Just about. We’re friends.” Her words were maybe just a touch too forceful, a touch too firm in her desire to warn her friends away from the topic, but she didn’t care. She and Hatsume were friends, and what’s more, Hatsume was a really good friend to her; it wasn’t fair of them to ask her to offer explanation for that.

“Huh,” Momo whispered quietly, like she was surprised.

“What’s that like?” Mina’s voice sounded light enough, but there was a subtle stiffness to the arm that she had threaded through the crook of Ochako’s elbow that betrayed her unease with the conversation.

Once again missing all the signs of discord between his female companions, Kaminari turned around entirely to walk backwards and smile lecherously at the group. “Feel free to give me any details you’d like.”

Kyouka barely looked up from her phone to smack him on the back of the head. “Don’t be gross, Kaminari.”

Ridiculous pout on his face, Kaminari tried to look over at Kyouka while still walking backwards, mostly managing it. “What’s wrong with appreciating the beauty of female friendship?”

Tsuyu gave him a flat, deeply unimpressed look. “When you’re doing it? Everything.”

Kyouka stopped walking fully to give Kaminari a threatening look from beneath the fall of her bangs. “Don’t make me kick you out of the squad.”

Kaminari tripped on nothing. With an awkward laugh he righted himself and held up both hands in a gesture that was part “who me, I’m innocent” and part attempt to placate. “Alright, alright. I’ll be good, just for you.”

“Whatever.” Kyouka sniffed dismissively and started walking again, although in an entirely different direction. It looked like she was headed for the grassy area under a large shade tree.

The rest of the group followed behind her easily, and settled in a loose sprawl of bodies when they reached the base of it.

Ochako knew that had been her distraction, she knew it would be easiest to just let the conversation die there. Instead she found her mouth opening and words pouring out, almost like her tongue had a will of its own. “You guys know that just because she’s attracted to girls, it doesn’t mean that she’s attracted to me specifically, right?” This was too important to just let go. Hatsume was too good a friend for Ochako to not at least make the attempt to help her other friends understand this.

“Well why wouldn’t she be?” Mina’s head jerked up and she almost looked offended on Ochako’s behalf. “I feel like you’re selling yourself short, Ochako.”

Unable to help herself, Ochako rolled her eyes at that and gathered her knees to her chest, wrapping one arm around her bent legs. “There are any number of reasons why Hatsume wouldn’t be attracted to me. She doesn’t have to like every girl she sees; she doesn’t even have to like all the ones she thinks are pretty.” Ochako herself certainly didn’t feel attraction to every person she found physically appealing, and she’d bet her career as a pro hero that everyone else sitting here was the same way. That just wasn’t how attraction worked. Why was everyone so convinced that Hatsume’s orientation made that work differently for her?

A thoughtful little frown curved Momo’s mouth and furrowed her brow slightly. “Yeah, but, isn’t it weird that you don’t know?” She leaned forward and braced her hands on the ground next to her hips, looking eager for Ochako to clear this all up, like something about this conversation or situation was really bothering her.

Biting, instinctive words pushed to the forefront of Ochako’s mind and scrambled over themselves in a frantic bid to be let out of her mouth. She swallowed them down and forced herself to really think about the best way to handle that question. This was too important to resort to harsh words and unhelpful responses. Maybe her friends did have some sort of problem with Hatsume that was deeper than anything Ochako could hope to help with a well-argued point, although she certainly hoped that wasn’t the case. But if all these questions and discomfort were really coming from a place of ignorance and honestly trying to understand and accept something that was simply incomprehensible to them, then Ochako had committed herself to giving a different type of answer when she decided to be friends with a gay person.

After calming herself and giving it a little consideration, Ochako turned to the only boy in their group. “Kaminari, you like girls right?” she asked, voice thick with sarcasm. She may be trying to make a point, but she wasn’t going to do it with a lecture or some speech lifted directly from the inside of a pamphlet at a health clinic.

“Uh… I feel like this is a trick question somehow.” Kaminari looked almost panicked at being put on the spot in this way. It seemed like he’d finally clued in to the fact that something was going on here.

Ochako laid her cheek against her knee and started plucking blades of grass from the earth, floating them a few inches off the ground with her quirk. She didn’t look at her friends, focused on the fluttering blades of grass, when she asked, “how many of you feel weird about being his friend, about hanging out with him right now? How many of you know for a fact whether or not he’s attracted to you?”

Apparently, Ochako’s words did nothing to ease Kaminari’s mind. “Yep. Definitely a trick question,” he muttered beneath his breath, but didn’t seem compelled to add anything else to the conversation.

Looking intrigued by the conversation and the points Ochako had raised, Mina flopped over on her back in the plush grass. “Yeah, but like. What would you do if you found out she did like you?” she asked like the question had just occurred to her.

Floating her little harvest of grass higher, so that it was now even with her face, Ochako shrugged as well as she could in this curled position. “Probably the same thing I’d do if a boy I was friends with confessed and I didn’t return his feelings - feel flattered and turn them down as kindly as possible and do my best to maintain the friendship if she was comfortable with that.”

In a strangled sounding voice, Momo asked, “you’d still be friends with her even if you found out she liked you?” The look on her face was flabbergasted and maybe even a touch uncomfortable.

Ochako released her hold on the grass and looked directly at Momo. “Yes. If it was possible.” She didn’t want to leave any room for any of them to doubt the conviction in her answer.

Jumping into the conversation again, Tooru piped up from where it looked like she was lying on her stomach with her feet kicked up in the air behind her. “So does she talk to you about stuff like that? Like girls she likes or think are cute or whatever?” Again, she sounded like she was just genuinely curious, nothing more pointed or malicious than that in her tone, but with her it was almost always impossible to be certain you were reading her right.

“Sometimes,” Ochako answered easily enough. She relaxed a little at both Tooru’s tone and the nature of her question and added, “I mean I don’t want her to hide it from me or anything.”

Momo’s lips pursed like she didn’t like that answer, and Mina’s brow furrowed like she had to think about, but neither of them said anything.

Ochako didn’t actually know what to do about the lack of questions. She got the distinct feeling that this conversation wasn’t over, but so far it had been driven by her friends’ questions and their need to work through them toward understanding. Or, well. Not all her friends. Kyouka and Tsuyu had been conspicuously silent for some time now, and Ochako wondered at that. Were they more comfortable with the idea of being friends with someone who wasn’t straight? Maybe they just didn’t want to argue, or didn’t know what to say or ask. Ochako looked over at them - Kyouka leaning against the trunk of the tree and Tsuyu sitting and looking relaxed a few feet away. She had no idea what either one was thinking, but she supposed it was a really good sign that they hadn’t left either.

In the ringing silence that was starting to feel awkward Kaminari blurted, “why not? Wouldn’t that just be easier for everyone?” and then immediately looked horrified at himself for speaking.

“For me, you mean?” The words were sharp, bitter. Ochako knew Kaminari hadn’t meant to be mean-spirited, the shock on his face clearly betraying that the insensitive comment was simply thoughtless, not cruel; she found that didn’t make it any easier not to get angry over them. She took a deep breath and continued in a slightly more rational tone. “Think about how big a part of your life and who you are as a person things like who you’re attracted to and romance and relationships are. Then picture locking that away and having to hold it close around your friends, never able to share that part of yourself. How much would that hurt? How genuine could a friendship like that really be? What if you found out one of your guy friends liked guys and both of you just kept pretending you didn’t know about it because it made you feel more comfortable. Would the two of you just continue on like that year after year indefinitely until he was as good as married to someone he loved and you wouldn’t even know because you were too uncomfortable to talk about it? You might be able to ask something like that of someone you consider a friend, but I don’t think I can.” She huffed out a gusty sigh, most of her irritation going with it. “So no, I actually don’t think it would be easier for me to be friends with a gay girl if we both just pretended she actually wasn’t gay all the time.”

“It’s not weird though, hearing about other girls like that?” It seemed like Mina had finally settled on the question she wanted to ask Ochako, turning her head toward Ochako to ask.

Ochako snorted. “No weirder than listening to Kaminari or one of you when you talk about a boy you like for reasons that don’t make any sense to me.” She shrugged lightly, trying desperately to take this conversation back to something casual and less emotionally fraught. “Besides. It’s not like the only thing we talk about is girls or how gay she is. In fact, that kind of stuff hardly ever comes up.”

“So what do you talk about then?” Tsuyu asked in an unconcerned tone. She almost sounded bored by the conversation, but anyone who knew her well would know that this was how she was when she was trying to smooth over awkwardness or confrontations that were getting a little too heated.

Blindingly, rapturously appreciative of Tsuyu and what an excellent friend she was, Ochako smiled brightly. “The same things I talk about with almost all my friends. School, family, mutual friends, lack of sleep, movies and stuff - that kind of thing.”

“It can’t really be that similar to being friends with a girl that- that’s not gay.” Momo looked genuinely, profoundly confused by that.

There was still some annoyance simmering in Ochako’s blood, but it had mellowed some now that Tsuyu had spoken up for her in her own unobtrusive way. It was easier to be sarcastic and a little mocking of Momo’s ridiculous ideas than it would have been just moments earlier. “Hmm. You might be right. There are definitely more robots, small fires, and fearing for the state of our eyebrows involved in our friendship. But I get the feeling that’s just because it’s Hatsume - not because she’s a lesbian.”

“Fires?” Kyouka asked with alarm, chin coming up and eyes going round at the same time that Tsuyu asked, “eyebrows?” with even more alarm in her tone.

Feeling the tension break apart and scatter like raindrops, Ochako laughed. “You guys keep worrying about me sparring with Bakugou when you should really be concerned with my personal safety when I go visit Hatsume in her workshop.”

“Noted,” Kaminari acknowledged gravely, effectively ending the conversation.

***

“Did she call you?” Ochako spit out in a rush of words the instant she saw Hatsume. She’d been waiting all night and this morning for some sort of update about the girl from the movie theater who had absolutely been flirting with you, are you crazy Hatsume? before asking for her friend’s number, and hadn’t heard a peep from Hatsume. Ochako was practically foaming at the mouth for details.

“Yeah,” Hatsume answered in a voice stripped of anything resembling emotion.

The first curl of unease wriggled in Ochako’s gut but she pressed forward. “Well, how did that go?” she asked as carefully neutral as possible. She wasn’t going to press and make Hatsume talk about it if things had gone badly, but she was choosing to be optimistic for the time being.

Hatsume shrugged. “Fine. But I think we’ll probably end up just being friends. There just wasn’t that extra spark there.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. I’m sorry you don’t think it will work out.” She was genuinely sorry, as invested in Hatsume finding happiness as much as she was for her other friends, she just didn’t know how much sympathy to offer. Hatsume’s blandness was effective; Ochako couldn’t tell if it was an act to hide her disappointment or if she was truly as unconcerned as she appeared.

“Eh, it’s fine. Nothing wrong with not being into every girl I talk to and I don’t mind making new friends.” She looked at Ochako kind of pointedly after that, like she was waiting for her to get some obvious thing she wasn’t saying out loud.

“Of course!” Ochako blurted when the penny dropped. Of course she knew that; hadn’t she just argued this point with other friends the other day? It bothered her a little that Hatsume thought she didn’t understand the difference between “liking girls” as a sexual orientation and “being attracted to literally every girl” but she chose to gloss over that in favor of simply offering sincere support; that seemed like it should be a conversation for another time. “I’m happy you’re not disappointed. Because you’re my friend. And it sucks when you’re friends are unhappy and there’s nothing you can do to help.”

Mollified by that answer, Hatsume smiled softly at Ochako. “I get the feeling just having you as a friend would always help.”

Ochako ducked her head and was surprised to find that she had to blink a few tears out of her eyelashes. She wasn’t used to such frank compliments and appreciation; being friends with Hatsume Mei could be really dangerous to one’s equilibrium.

***

“What’s that?” Ochako asked with a healthy wariness earned honestly from repeated exposure to Hatsume’s “babies.” The little metal man sitting in front of Ochako’s usual lunch seat looked like nothing more than a harmless toy robot, but she sure wasn’t stupid enough to sit down in front of it until Hatsume confirmed that.

A smirk with a wicked undercurrent, like she knew exactly what Ochako was thinking and was delighted by the knowledge unfurled on Hatsume’s face. “This, is the Tiny Tenya 10,000. Couldn’t sleep last night so I made him for you.”

That didn’t actually do much to reassure her, but Ochako slid into her seat anyway. “Well if he doesn’t do more than turn in a circle and lift his arms I’m going to be disappointed.” Also, now she was curious about whether Iida would be flattered or insulted that Hatsume had made a tiny robot version of him. She supposed that might depend on what exactly the little guy did.

The slightly manic grin Hatsume favored her with at that wasn’t all that reassuring either. “You better believe he does. Watch this.” She pressed a button and the little figure shuddered to life.

Tiny Tenya snapped into a perfectly upright position, although it was hard to tell if that was just by virtue of him being a robot and made of metal, or if it was an attempt to mimic Iida’s always impeccable posture. His eyes were perfect squares, and they glowed with light that really evoked the way light glinted off their friend’s glasses well. From his attention pose, he lifted his legs to march in a square pattern - obviously superior to a simple circle - and then stopped. Staring directly at Ochako, he demanded “WHAT IS THE STATUS OF YOUR EYEBROWS?” in an imperious, mechanized voice.

Ohmygod,” Ochako breathed out between wheezing with the effort of holding her laughter in. “Uh,they’re fine,” she answered the little robot, voice lilting up at the end like it was a question.

“EXCELLENT NEWS,” Tiny Tenya reported, somehow managing to sound overly-serious for a robot, and then said, “CALCULATING RISK FACTOR FOR EYEBROW SINGEING.” While he was calculating, his little metal arms ran through a series of crisp hand signals. His arms stilled, and then he reported. “EYEBROW FORECAST IS FAVORABLE. EVERYTHING IS FINE.”

Ochako couldn’t help it, her composure deserted her entirely at that and she started laughing uncontrollably, big huge guffaws complete with soft snorts when she tried to breathe through them. She put her head down on the table, entire body shaking with amusement, and laughed until tears leaked from the corners of her eyes and her belly hurt. When she finally lifted her head, to look at Hatsume, the other girl didn’t appear to be faring any better.

Seeing that she had Ochako’s attention though, Hatsume waved her hand frantically and tried to stifle her amusement long enough to get words out. It took her a minute or two, but finally she managed, “okay, one more.” Then reached out to Tiny Tenya to press another button on his back.

Immediately the little robot launched into several cartwheels across the surface of the table. When he came to a stop, he announced “SUPER CUTE!” He began another series of hand signals following the words, but this time instead of being random, he used his body to shape the letters B - A - B - Y.

“He’s going to kill you,” was all Ochako could get out in horrified wonder before she lost it entirely again and almost slid out of her seat laughing.

***

Kirishima ambled into the common room, duffle bag over his shoulder and cheerful smile painted on his face. “Ready bro?” he chirped in Ochako’s direction.

Ochako shot him an easy smile and nod in answer and started toward the door, her fingers wrapped loosely around the straps of her own gym bag.

Before they could exchange any more words between them, Mineta’s disgusted groan sounded loudly from the direction of the couches. “Ughhh. Stop trying to turn her into a boy. It’s already too much of a sausage fest in this dorm.”

Annoyed and caught off guard, Ochako’s hands tightened into fists and she turned back, trying to think of something appropriately cutting to respond with.

Surprisingly, it was Bakugou who spoke into the silence following Mineta’s words first. “What the fuck are you talking about?” The growl in his voice didn’t hold any of the volatile anger Ochako had learned to listen for, only contained the potential for it to ignite. In anyone else it would be considered a note of warning.

Either missing the subtleties hiding in the layers of Bakugou’s vocal tones, or ignoring it entirely, Mineta shot a scathing look at Kirishima and continued. “Is the ‘bro’ really necessary? It’s bad enough she’s going to work out with you muscle monkeys, no need for the situation to get more manly.”

A pained, almost concerned expression twisted Kirishima’s features. “Dude. I’ve got girl-bros and boy-bros and whatever-bros. I’m equal opportunity with my bro status. Just looking for cool people to be close with man, don’t much care about the gender flavor they happen to come in.”

“But please do feel free to elaborate on how Ochako working out is somehow manly,” Mina purred from her spot sprawled on one of the floor pillows. Her tone was sugar-sweet and purposefully light. Not a single person in the room missed the promise of danger she packed into every syllable.

Except for Mineta. “What good would sacrificing her, admittedly less than generous, but still soft and enjoyable, curves to hard muscle do? What’s she need to look like that for?” he whined waving his hand in Kirishima’s direction to illustrate what he meant by “that.”

Humiliated and angrier than she’d been in a long time, Ochako felt the promise of tears prickle her eyes.

“To deal with idiots like you?” offered Kyouka drily without looking up from the magazine she was flipping through.

Bakugou snorted derisively at that. “Please. She doesn’t need to be as stacked as Shitty-hair to break a fucker like that in half.” He clamped his mouth shut after that, twisting it up into a sneer, like he’d just realized he’d inadvertently complimented Kirishima and was trying to cover the slip.

“Fucker…” Mineta mouthed nealy silently, looking sort of dazed and bizarrely thrilled like it had been a compliment.

With a gasp that could have been exaggerated for effect or totally genuine, Kirishima’s expression went gooey. “You think I’m stacked? Bro… that is so sweet,” he cooed at Bakugou.

She couldn’t be sure, but Ochako thought that it was possible that this was Kirishima’s attempt to direct attention away from her, even if he was legitimately pleased by the implication. She’d noticed that was sort of a pattern with him, but still wasn’t quite close enough with him to spot the behavior in the moment. Either way, she appreciated that everyone in the room wasn’t looking at her anymore.

The barest hint of pink kissed Bakugou’s cheekbones and he didn’t look over at Kirishima when he muttered, “shut the fuck up and die,” without much heat at all.

Ignoring the interruption entirely, Mina bit out, “but if Ochako did want to get ripped, she’d still be beautiful,” like she was just daring anyone to argue with her.

It was the final straw. “Or maybe Ochako doesn’t care,” Ochako heard herself snapping bitterly. “Maybe I just want my body to do what I need it to in a fight and I don’t care what it makes me look like. Maybe I’m concerned with how strong villains think I am, not how feminine.”

Todoroki spoke up for the first time, a small, practically unnoticeable smile shaping his expression into something privately amused. He didn’t have to raise his voice any to grab everyone’s attention and have them practically leaning forward to hang in his every word. “Besides, if your definition of manliness is muscle, then every girl in our class is manlier than you, Mineta.”

It was quiet for several seconds while they all processed that, and then everyone in the room erupted into laughter. Kirishima and Ochako took the opportunity to escape out the front door.

***

The look on her face or the tense lines of her muscles had definitely broadcast to both her gym buddies that she was frustrated and angry. Without any questions at all, both Kirishima and Tetsutetsu had been content to pretty much let her do her own thing for a while until she burned off the caustic energy, only circling quietly into her orbit when she did an exercise that was unsafe without a spotter.

For more than an hour Ochako moved with deliberate and intense focus through set after set of lifts and squats and curls and planks. The routine Kirishima and Tetsutetsu had devised for her was excellent, and it was effective; she’d already noticed a difference in class and regular sparring with Bakugou. There wasn’t a thing short of bodily injury that would distract her from it. The rage bubbling in her gut might have been understandable and natural, but it wasn’t useful. So she left the heat of it on a low simmer while she applied herself to doing what needed to be done.

Only when she’d completed the last exercise did she let her temper flare. She did her last rep, returned the barbell to the rack, and headed straight for the heavy punching bag on the opposite side of the gym. She noticed Tetsutetsu’s raised eyebrows and questioning look and Kirishima’s answering headshake. Then she took her first swing and there was nothing but the thud of her fists against the leather and the rasp of her own breath loud in her ears for several long minutes.

Ochako had no idea how long it had taken her to work out the last of her inarticulate fury against the sandbag and for awareness to return to her; time had become irrelevant. Her hands and muscles were sore, but in that pleasant well-used, post-workout way, not the achy oh-no-I-overdid-it way. It must not have been too long. She snagged a water bottle and a towel from her bag and guzzled down about half the bottle. Now sufficiently hydrated, she took the bottle and the towel to the other side of the room to collapse on the mat next to where Tetsutetsu was spotting Kirishima’s bench pressing. She swiped absently at the sweat on her face and neck, trying to catch up on the story Tetsutetsu was in the middle of.

“Bro, it was brutal,” Tetsutetsu whined, sounding truly pained.

“It’s probably not as bad as you’re thinking it is.” Even slightly breathless with the effort of his lifting, the earnest encouragement could be heard in Kirishima’s voice.

Tone dry as the desert, Tetsutetsu deadpanned, “I told him his face made me forget how words worked. And then I ran away.” He waited until Kirishima finished his last rep and set the bar back in the rack before continuing. “I’m not even sure if I managed to make it sound like that it was a good thing. What if he thinks I meant I didn’t like his face. Bro… I may have just tried to flirt with a pretty bird-boy and his shadow demon and accidentally insulted him instead. I am the worst.” He buried his face in both hands.

Ochako knew she was staring, but she couldn’t help it. Both Tetsutetsu and Kirishima had hinted or made jokes about maybe being into guys in the past, but neither of them had ever said anything definite. To be discussing it so openly in front of her… Maybe they thought she still wasn’t paying attention, or that she already knew based on their past comments. Or maybe this was Testutetsu’s way of coming out to her; it did seem like an idea crazy enough for these two goobers to decide to go with.

Kirishima winced. “Okay, yeah. Not gonna lie bro, that is pretty bad. But if it makes you feel better I think Tokoyami probably knows you well enough to just assume you’re dumb, not mean. I’ll talk to him and let him know that you wanted to make sure he just thinks you’re pathetic not an asshole.”

“Shut the fuck up. You know how weak I am for a pretty face.” The words were slightly muffled by the hands still covering his face.

Laughing brightly, but not maliciously, Kirishima patted him on the arm consolingly. “Not weak, stupid. It’s like your brain just gives up on you, bro. I can practically hear the flatlining noise every time.” His eyes flickered over to Ochako, letting her know she was welcome to join the conversation anytime she wanted, but he wouldn’t push her if she still needed some space.

“Ugh. I know. It really kind of is.” Tetsutetsu rolled his eyes at himself.

Shrugging, Kirishima stood to start on some cool-down stretching and continued blandly. “It could be worse. You could have the opposite problem, like me. Brain on overdrive with no brain-to-mouth filter is probably worse than brain slowly dying with no brain-to-mouth filter.”

Tetsutetsu smirked. “Like that time you asked Shoji to suffocate you with his thighs?”

“Yeah. Like that. Or how I very nearly asked Kendou to break me in half a few days ago.” Kirishima groaned in agonized humiliation. “Because bro, I do not know if she could actually break me in half, but man would I not be upset about letting her try. As many times as needed.”

Any and all surprise at the unexpected revelation of their sexuality melted away and ceased to be relevant to her as she lost herself in the thing that made being around these boys so special. Ochako loved this about hanging out with them. They pushed and prodded at each other’s weak spots, laughed about them in a way that would be meant to shame or tear down between anyone else. Only with these two the laughter wasn’t a tool, it was the point; amusement to be shared between them, humiliation easier to bear because they split the burden.

Tetsutetsu continued the conversation as he moved through some stretches of his own. “It’s a good thing we’re not nearly as alike as people always say we are, bro. Even though we’re pathetically bad at flirting, we are some thirsty dudes; it’d be a shame if thirsting after the same person ever came between us bro.”

“Never.” Kirishima answered quickly and as rock-solid as his quirk-hardened skin. The rest of his thoughts on the matter were delivered in a slightly milder tone. “I feel like the odds are with us anyway, considering we’re both bi as fuck and painfully desperate; that widens the candidate pool tremendously. Besides, we have a system. You take the pretty ones, I’ll take the ones that can kick my ass, and we’ll call it good.”

Caught up in their rhythm, feeling bold, Ochako cut in. “For the good of your friendship, I’ll take all the ones that overlap. Especially if they’ve got a soft heart to go with it. It’ll be rough, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” It was a risky statement to make, nipping at the edges of something she wasn’t even ready to admit to herself, but she found she liked the feeling of playing with fire anyway.

Looking slightly surprised, Tetsutetsu recovered quickly to turn a too-wide, excited grin at her. It wasn’t clear if he’d picked up on the undercurrent of her words or if he was just pumped she was finally joining the conversation. “You’re a good bro, Uraraka.” It was both alarming and adorable how earnest he and Kirishima could be.

Kirishima nodded seriously in agreement, looking thrilled that Ochako had shrugged off her earlier funk and was joining in their teasing. “Truly best-bro status.”

“Two votes,” Tetsutetsu affirmed without hesitation.

“Well, obviously,” Ochako muttered trying to sound mockingly arrogant but fearing she missed the mark. She was weirdly touched by these goofy boys and their uncomplicated offered of acceptance and laughter.

“So. Tough but sweet, that’s what works for you huh?” Kirishima questioned, a thin thread of gentle teasing woven through the question.

Smirking slightly, Ochako nodded. “And pretty. Don’t forget pretty.”

Looking long-suffering, Tetsutetsu blew out a gusty sigh. “Literally impossible for me.”

“You have mentioned that. A time or two.” She broke off into giggles for a second before continuing, more honest about this subject than she’d ever dared before. “But yes. I want someone who has enough of their own strength and kindness to appreciate that I have a lot of both too.”

Nodding in apparent commiseration, Kirishima pursed his lips into a frown that felt somewhat sympathetic. “I feel that, bro. It’s a constant mystery to me why there is not more appreciation for badass ladies. And you bro, are one badass lady.”

“Thanks.” It was the best she could manage around her flustered pleasure.

The conversation continued after that, ebbing and flowing in the same easy rhythm; Ochako was even sure she participated in it at certain points. She couldn’t have told you a single thing that was said after that point though. She kept waiting for one of them to point out how gender neutral everything she’d just said was. She kept expecting them to ask, her heart pounding fast and hard the way it did when she was working the sandbag. Making her way to her room after neither of them did, a weird thrill buzzed beneath her skin. She couldn’t escape the feeling that she’d just gotten away with something.

***

Bi… bisexual… bisexuality is a thing that exists… why hadn’t anyone told her it was possible to be attracted to BOTH?

In the wake of that staggering, life changing realization, Ochako felt stupid. So, so stupid. She’d heard the word before - she couldn’t remember where, or when, but she had - so the concept shouldn’t have blindsided her quite so thoroughly. But it had. All of this recent confusion and fretting she’d been doing about why she kept noticing girls when she knew for certain she liked boys, it had been twisting her up and leaving her shaken for weeks now.

She was so, so stupid.

All this time she’d been thinking she had to make a choice. It had just… never occurred to her that liking both was an option. But minutes after listening to Tetsutetsu and Kirishima talk about their love of all persons pretty or strong regardless of gender, making it seem like you were into whatever you were into and that just couldn’t be helped, Ochako had been gifted one perfect shining moment of oh yes, that please. Bisexual was a thing she could be.

And then the feeling dumb had set in.

Of course, she was bisexual. Of course she was. It made so much sense; it was the only thing that made sense now that she thought about it. Like she’d slotted a piece that had always been missing into some puzzle in her brain, Ochako could finally see the full picture. Girls had been there for her just as long as boys, in the same way as boys - she’d just never noticed. There’d been several girls through the years who, now that she was thinking about it with this new insight, had made her feel exactly like the boys she’d had crushes on growing up. She just hadn’t recognized that bright, burning need to be as close to them as possible as anything other than friendship. Maybe if she’d known it had been an option back then, it would have been her best friend Miko-chan that she’d proposed to on the playground in first grade instead of Kentarou.

Now that she’d cracked the code, her brain kept turning over other things wondering what she’d missed, kept examining all the relationships she had with her female classmates. Kyouka… Ochako thought Kyouka was just so cool, and interesting, and funny, and pretty, and every time she got to hang out with the other girl she felt almost giddy with the enjoyment of it. Oh. Oh no…

She had a crush on Kyouka.

And absolutely no idea what to do about it.

***

Steam curled up from the surface of Ochako’s cup of tea and it was an effort in futility to try and convince herself to get up from the breakfast bar and start packing away her schoolwork so she could head to class. Sleep still settled like a heavy blanket over all her bodily functions and sitting there and sipping slowly at her tea for the next forever in the vain attempt to wake up fully seemed like a much more preferable idea. Her phone chimed with a text notification, shaking her somewhat from her daze. It chirped twice more in quick succession and she frowned in thought, wondering who was blowing up her phone this early in the morning.

Swiping her thumb to unlock the messages, she found a picture and two texts from Hatsume waiting for her. The picture of Iida was clearly taken mid-motion, the shape of his hands blurred where they were obviously waving through the air. His mouth was open so wide it almost made a perfect square and his eyes weren’t visible with the way the flash reflected off the lenses of his glasses. Ochako recognized the signs of a speech mid-delivery instantly.

Hatsume: One little fire while he was in the shop and Tenya thinks I need a lecture on proper safety protocols.

Hatsume: #itstooearlyforthis

That startled a quick bark of laughter out of Ochako’s throat and she smiled down at her phone and quickly tapped out a reply.

Ochako: What’s the status of your eyebrows? If they’re still attached to your face, tell Tenya to stand down. Even Tiny Tenya knows that much.

The answer was near immediate; Ochako’s brain was still too sleep-rumpled to tell herself not to be pleased that Hatsume had obviously been waiting for her reply.

Hatsume: eyebrows are present and accounted for.

There was a beat or two while Ochako tried to think of something to say back, and then another message popped up.

Hatsume: Tenya says regardless of what my robot says the degree of eyebrow singing is not an acceptable scale for determining the severity of workshop accidents. :( I was gonna let him make a chart and everything.

Ochako: Pity. You almost never burn them off anymore.

Hatsume: Of course not. Now I care about staying pretty for the ladies.

It wasn’t until she flushed inexplicably at Hatsume’s last message that Ochako realized that she’d gotten up from the kitchen and headed to her room to finish getting ready without thinking about it, wide smile never dropping off her face. Hatsume’s text had motivated her to start her day in a way she’d been unable to manage herself.

***

It was like that first conversation started something, and now every day Ochako’s morning started with tea at the bar and at least one text from Hatsume. Their easy back and forth always managed to wake her up more than the tea did.

***

Hatsume: Why did I think staying up until 4 am last night was a good idea? I’m going to die.

Ochako: Probably not. But I’m sure you’ll wish you had.

Hatsume: Is that sass? Are you *sassing* me, Ochako???

Hatsume: ugh. I’m too tired to deal with that properly.

Ochako: I’m sure you’ll be fine. I’ll see you, and *maybe* your eyebrows at lunch. Awake til 4 seems conducive to singeing

Ochako: I’m gonna talk to Tenya and see if he’s more willing to use Degree of Eyebrow Singe as a scale for shop safety if we plot it against how late you stayed up.

Ochako: you know the only thing that boy likes more than a spreadsheet is a graph.

Hatsume: I hate you.

Ochako: Mhm. Sure.

***

Mei: I talked to Tenya last night and he mentioned something about cross referencing spreadsheets and sorting the resulting data to cross reference with… something, something, I started tuning him out at that point.

Mei: Anyway, it looks like he’s in full on exam-crazy mode, so…

Ochako: yeah, I figured it was coming soon. Don’t worry, I got this.

***

Mei: Someone in the dorm drank all the jasmine tea.

Mei: Whoever it is better hope I never find them out.

Mei: My retribution will be neither hurried or unimaginative.

Ochako: calm down, Evil Overlord. No need for vigilante justice this early in the morning.

Mei: but there is a need for jasmine tea this early in the morning.

Mei: you will not thwart me in this, Ochako.

Mei: I cannot handle another Eyebrow Risk Factor Level 10 day in the workshop today.

Ochako: I know. *None* of us are prepared for that. If you meet me in front of the cafeteria I’ll bring you a cup.

Mei: this is why you’ve always been my favorite.

Ochako: Tenya’s your favorite.

Mei: not when you have jasmine tea.

Ochako: the sooner you quit whining and get to the cafeteria, the sooner YOU will have tea too.

Mei: generous AND brilliant… truly I nor my eyebrows deserve you in our life.

***

Mei: the steps between the courtyard and the gym are iced over this morning. I’ve seen 2 people fall already. Be careful.

Ochako: Thanks! I will.

Ochako: You too!

***

Mei: good morning

Ochako: morning! Have a great day!

***

Somewhere along the way Hatsume had become Mei and Ochako realized she talked to her more than she talked to anyone else. She started every morning by texting Mei, ate lunch with her every day, and she was always the last person Ochako talked to every night. And that was just the start of it. There were more movie nights - with and without Tenya - hanging out in Mei’s workshop, studying together, shopping, and just chilling and doing absolutely nothing. Unexpectedly, and completely without her notice, Mei had become her best friend.

***

It wasn’t much to go on, and Ochako knew it. Sometimes it made her feel crazy; turning every encounter over in her mind endlessly, searching for clues about things unspoken in body language and the precise degree of tilt to Kyouka’s softer smiles. Sometimes it made her feel like she was losing her mind; sometimes she felt like she’d seen something normally kept under wraps.

Between wondering the usual things like how soft is her hair? or would you describe the exact shade of her skin as pale or creamy? Ochako was also asking herself things like does she smile at anyone else like that? and does it mean anything that she touches me more than all the other girls?

Ochako hadn’t found anything in the way of definitive answers, but there were signs. Little things. Kyouka never hesitated to share headphones with Ochako whenever she wanted her to listen to something. Kyouka always sat closer to her than was strictly necessary on the couch, enough so their thighs pressed tight together every time. Kyouka had never snapped at her in the mornings, before she’d woken up fully, like she did with everyone else. She called Ochako cute sometimes. She hadn’t painted her nails any color but purple since that time she’d picked out a matching color for Ochako. She’d fallen asleep on Ochako’s shoulder the last time they’d taken a bus off-campus for training. And maybe Ochako was crazy, but Kyouka’s smile did look like it was softer and sweeter whenever she aimed it at Ochako lately. Little things that meant nothing individually, but taken as a whole…

Hope sprouted in Ochako’s heart, climbed and twisted over her ribs like a vine on a trellis, and bloomed beneath the sun-bright warmth of Kyouka’s affection.

***

Someone, and Ochako had never actually heard who specifically, had decided that the best response to their teachers’ progressively louder grumblings about inter-class cooperation was a party. Ochako wasn’t sure she quite agreed that it was going to do anything to facilitate any sort of cooperation, but she was having a good time. Or, well, she had been, until the topic that wouldn’t seem to go away reared its ugly head yet again. Someone had mentioned Tooru’s comments about Midnight-sensei from all those weeks ago to raucous laughter all around and then they were off, asking every girl in the room which girl they’d be willing to go out with.

Definitely not wanting to have to answer that question again, Ochako made some vague noises about getting a drink and then escaped to the kitchen.

It looked like Kyouka’d had the same idea, the other girl leaning against one of the countertops and smiling faintly at Ochako. She nodded her chin in the direction of the common room, where they could still hear the laughter and occasional cat-call from one of the boys. “I’m glad there wasn’t this many people around when you said you’d pick me.”

Ochako flushed and felt her stomach trying to tie itself in knots. “Oh, uh, did I like, embarrass or upset you or something?”

Frowning, Kyouka shook her head. “No- no, not, uh, not like that anyway. I just think it would have been a lot harder to hide my reaction in a situation like that.”

“Oh.” That actually sounded kind of promising. Even as she told herself not to get her hopes up too much, Ochako licked her lips and asked, “so then, what was your reaction?” in a careful voice.

“You don’t know?” Kyouka was smirking at her, but there was something both flirty and a little insecure in the expression.

Ochako huffed out a laugh. “I was too busy staring at the floor and praying for it to swallow me to check.”

“Oh.” A pretty pink flush started just below Kyouka’s collarbone and spread slowly up the column of her neck. “Well I was surprised of course. And obviously flattered by the compliment. But mostly it was just… nice.”

Floored by that, Ochako couldn’t help but blurt out, “Seriously? Why would you be surprised?” She wished she could be better at this, cute and charming rather than awkward and too-direct.

“You wanna know why I’d be surprised by a cute girl saying she’d want to date me if she dated girls?” Her tone was as flat as the look she gave Ochako.

The word “cute” made Ochako’s brain stutter to a halt for a second before coming back online in an even higher gear, thoughts racing. She didn’t know if Kyouka had meant that the way Ochako wanted her to, but it gave her the courage to cautiously dare to hope, to take a few more steps into the kitchen so that she could stand closer to Kyouka and lean against the same counter. “Yeah? Because I don’t find it all that surprising. I’m pretty sure everyone wants to date you.”

Kyouka snorted at that, obviously dismissing it. “I can’t imagine why anyone would. I don’t even think I know what to do on a date.” She sounded completely genuine, not like she was fishing for compliments or anything.

“You’d be a great date,” Ochako protested instantly, and then promptly felt her face burst into flames. Despite that, she couldn’t keep from looking up at Kyouka through her lashes and adding, “a great girlfriend,” much more quietly.

Kyouka dropped her voice down to a whisper as well. “You think so?”

Ochako hummed in agreement. “You’re a very caring person. And you pay attention to people. I’m sure you’d be a very thoughtful girlfriend.” She leaned closer to Kyouka unconsciously, wanting to be closer. “You’re funny and interesting and easy to be around.”

“Ochako, stop. This is too much.” The words were barely more than breath they were exhaled so quietly, and even though they were a protest, Kyouka made no move to back away. Instead, she leaned even closer.

“I’m sorry,” Ochako whispered back.

“I don’t think that you are.” There was a lazy, teasing grin curving Kyouka’s lips, making her words feel knowing and intimate.

They were standing so close. They hadn’t touched at all, and of course it was all hints and double-speak, and Ochako couldn’t really be sure that they were actually talking about what she thought they were talking about, but they were standing so close, and she liked Kyouka so much, and Ochako wanted to be right more than anything. The scary thing was that she thought she might be. The way Kyouka was smiling at her and had this look in her eyes that was both soft and heated made it feel like they were standing on the top of some cliff together, toes right up against the edge. Playfully, flirtatiously, carefully they were asking each other if they were ready to jump. The heady rush of the possibility that Kyouka’s answer might be “yes” made her dizzy.

“Hey Jirou, where’d you-” Kaminari’s half-shouted question preceded him into the kitchen. “Oh, there you are.”

The girls backed away from each other, barely managing to not look suspicious about it, their private moment officially over. Kaminari continued to rattle on to Kyouka, but Ochako couldn’t pay attention to him now if her life depended on it. Her heart was racing, adrenaline spiking; in her mind she was still standing on the edge of that cliff.

Kyouka made noises like she was listening to Kaminari, but after a few seconds, she looked up and met Ochako’s eye and flashed her a sweet, secretive smile.

It was the last thing Ochako needed, the sign that told her Kyouka was ready to jump. She flung herself over the edge of that cliff, and revelled in the breathless rush of falling, falling, falling - the incredible rush of believing there was a chance these feelings could be mutual keeping her from ever hitting bottom.

***

When she figured out what all the fuss was about, got the source of the new wave of gossip around campus, it was like ice down Ochako’s back. Just last night she and Kyouka had… well, she thought they had come to an understanding anyway. There had been hope and affection in her heart this morning from the second she’d woken up. Now those feelings had slowly frozen over - Kyouka and Kaminari were dating.

Ochako hadn’t wanted to believe the rumors as first, not until she’d seen them herself, walking through the halls and shyly holding hands. She’d recognized even then that the sight hadn’t made her blaze with anger or ache with despair - she’d actually only managed to drudge up enough emotion through her confusion to acknowledge that they were sort of adorable together. She thought maybe if things were different, or maybe if they’d discussed things more overtly, made any sort of promises to each other, maybe then she’d be mad or hurt. Mostly she’d just been wondering why.

But she knew why, ultimately. Hatsume Mei and the entire school whispering about her that morning, and the way Ochako was still the only girl willing to do more than hover on the fringes of Mei’s space, and the way everyone somehow still thought Mei’s orientation was their business told Ochako why. Kyouka was afraid of that being her; she could want Ochako and not want that social pressure for herself.

Ochako couldn’t even be upset with her for it. She understood fear and its power. She didn’t fault Kyouka for not being ready for something like that, or for protecting herself, or choosing the path of least resistance. Ochako wasn’t angry, or betrayed, or heartbroken about it.

Ochako wasn’t anything at all about; the only thing she felt was numb.

***

For the first morning in a long time, the chime of her phone with Mei’s morning text did nothing to alter Ochako’s mood or perk her up. She swiped at her screen with clumsy, sensationless fingers and stared at the messages dispassionately.

Mei: I’m sorry about Jirou. Sucks.

Mei: We don’t have to talk about it.

Mei: but we can if you want.

Oh. Ochako apparently hadn’t been keeping secrets as well as she had thought. She sucked in a sharp breath and then closed her eyes for a handful of seconds. If everything hadn’t felt like it was reaching her through about thirty layers of gauze wrapping, she might have had a stronger reaction to that, to the knowledge about her those words implied. Maybe later she’d care more, or start to wonder why Mei would wait until now to hint that she knew about Ochako liking girls. Right now, she only managed to lock her phone again without texting back.

She couldn’t think of a single thing to say anyway.

When lunchtime rolled around she still hadn’t texted back yet. It would be easy enough to apologize, explain her radio silence, when they met up as usual and she had no doubt Mei would be both understanding and forgiving. The thought made Ochako feel so exhausted. She was just so tired today. All she wanted was for all the noise outside her head to go away, for reality to be as blank and quiet as her thoughts.

She ate lunch in the library that day. And the day after that. And the day after that. And...

***

Mei: Morning!! I’m gonna need like 3 more of these to get through the day. Stayed up way too late working on my babies last night.

Ochako stared at the picture of a gigantic cup of what was probably jasmine tea wondering why she’d been expecting the texts to stop. She looked at the picture until her screen dimmed but she didn’t text back.

She still hadn’t managed to hold on to any thoughts long enough to try something like conversation anyway.

***

Mei: Tenya and I have been missing you at lunch. You trying to get some extra studying in?

***

Mei: The new Renegade Robots is coming out next weekend, you wanna go?

***

Mei: u ok?

***

Mei: just checking in. haven’t heard from you in a while…

***

Mei: u don’t have to talk to me if u don’t want, but I still hope ur ok.

***

After that Mei seemed to take the hint or respect Ochako’s unspoken request for space or something. She didn’t text Ochako at all anymore when that last one about wanting Ochako to be okay went unanswered.

It wasn’t like Ochako didn’t feel guilty for not answering Mei’s texts, somewhere that felt far, far off and disconnected from her consciousness entirely she definitely did. But it also wasn’t like she was purposefully ignoring her either. Or that Mei was the only one.

Ochako just couldn’t right now. Anything or anyone - it all felt too difficult to manage. She felt like some machine that had been powered down by accident but they all still expected to function, thoughts and energy just completely shut off. Eventually someone would flip her switch back on; until then she was just waiting.

She didn’t mean to ignore Mei, or any of them. Ochako was just going through the motions; she didn’t mean to do anything these days.

***

Tiny Tenya was shuffling around on top of the desk where Ochako had left him. He’d been making that steady, soft beeping noise that signaled he needed to be plugged in to charge for at least half the day. As a result, he seemed to be moving a little slower than normal and, maybe it was just Ochako’s imagination, but the length of time between the phrases he shouted when he was in “idle” mode seemed to be stretching apart.

The charger was still on top of her desk too, would probably be pretty easy to find. It was a weekend though, so getting out of bed when she knew she didn’t have to seemed to require more energy than usual.

“REMAIN CALM!” Tiny Tenya advised her. This proclamation was followed by a series of beeps that sounded far more urgent than the previous ones.

Ochako felt the corner of her mouth lift in the barest hint of a smile. She really loved her little metal buddy and all morning, while she’d been laying in bed too aware to sleep but too lethargic to do more than lay there, every time he’d made his presence known with sound or movement it had given her a small measure of comfort.

“SPREADSHEETS!” the robot announced at only half its normal volume. There didn’t seem to be any accompanying movement with the voice this time and the same series of beeps sounded, insistent about the fact Tiny Tenya was operating on dangerously low power.

It was probably a really good thing that people didn’t have electronic beeping that told everyone when they were low on energy. Ochako thought the frequency of her beeping would be really distracting for everyone right now.

Tiny Tenya’s robotic voice died and faded out in the middle of the word “SPORTSMANSHIP!” The figure seemed to simply droop for a second, before the light faded from its eyes and he bent over at the waist, waiting for someone to charge him up and power him back on.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Ochako rolled over and faced the wall, telling herself she was going to try to sleep.

***

There were muffled voices right outside her door and Ochako knew she should care enough to be curious about them, but she didn’t. The knock was somewhat of a surprise - vaguely, the way everything registered with her right now - but not wildly unexpected. There had been tentative knocks periodically since she’d started spending all her free time in her room sleeping or staring at the walls or ceiling.

She must have made some sort of noise in response to the rap of knuckles that was taken as assent, because a few seconds later the door was cracked open and Tenya poked his head through the gap. “You have a visitor,” he said in that same warily neutral way they’d all been talking to her the past few days, like they were expecting her to fall apart at any minute.

Ochako felt so empty she wasn’t sure there was enough of her left to fall apart.

The door swung open wider and Mei was there looking nervous but determined, stepping inside and shutting the door behind her. The soft click was as loud as a gunshot in the oppressive, suffocating silence between them.

Idly, Ochako wondered why Mei would give her the same look now that she’d worn that day all those months ago when the truth of her sexuality became public knowledge. She couldn’t force the words to her tongue to ask. She didn’t know if she’d lost the right to know those kinds of things about Mei anymore.

Doing that thing she did where she tried to calm herself and organize her thoughts with deliberate movements, Mei pulled the lone chair in Ochako’s room away from the desk so it faced where Ochako lay in her bed, then settled herself into it. She took a deep, steadying breath. “So I’m not gonna let you do this to yourself, okay?” Every word was punched out like a bullet.

Given the circumstances, it wasn’t all that unexpected; Ochako wondered why she’d been hoping for something different. Especially when she had no idea what that might have been. There was a vicious, vaguely threatening edge lurking in Mei’s smile, well hidden enough that Tenya was the only other person who might have noticed it. Ochako hated that she still knew those kinds of things about Mei; she hated seeing things that were unspoken. They were so often misleading. She stared up at the ceiling, unblinking and calm, when she answered. “I’m not doing anything.”

“Yep.” Mei chirped in cheerful agreement, smile still too-wide and subtly predatory.

Okay, great. Good talk. Ochako thought sarcastically.

Mei wasn’t nearly so inclined to let her off the hook with just that. Her attention flickered over to Ochako’s desk, where Tiny Tenya was still bent at the waist- waiting - for a fraction of a second. “You haven’t done a single thing other than basic necessities and attending class. And your friends have noticed. And they want to help.”

“Well they can’t.” It was the kind of declaration that was meant to be raw and emotional. If Ochako was capable of feeling anything at all beyond icy numbness and vague impressions of emotion, that might have been harsh, snapped or bitten out roughly. The words were just hollow - as hollow as she felt. “Nothing happened anyway,” she felt compelled to point out, finding the energy to tilt her head and look at Mei again, wanting to see how she reacted to that sad truth.

The smile that perched itself on Mei’s face in response looked almost painful. It wasn’t like the aggressively nonjudgemental smiles, the forcefully patient and encouraging expressions her other friends had been giving her. There was an empathy to Mei’s weathered curve of the lips that spoke of understanding. “But you wanted it to, and that hurts,” she said, and it wasn’t a question. The twist of her mouth became slightly more bitter in some indefinable way. “I know exactly how much that can hurt.”

That wasn’t ever something Mei had told Ochako, she didn’t know what or who Mei was talking about, but she felt the truth of her pain and heartbreak like a physical touch. It was the first thing she’d really felt since the flowering vine of her hope had withered and died in her chest. Even still, that wasn’t enough. “It’s almost time for exams. I need to be worried about school and my next internship right now. I don’t have time to be… hurt, or whatever, over nothing happening.”

Accepting that excuse almost too easily, Mei nodded along like Ochako was making perfect sense. “Right. Which is why you can’t turn away from the people who care about you.” She grinned like Ochako had just sprung the elaborate trap she’d laid. After a beat, the grin became less triumphant and more self-deprecating. “I mean, uh, it doesn’t have to be me or anything. I get that I’m different than the rest of them. For you know, obvious reasons. But your friends are good people and they want you to be happy. Don’t push them away when you need them most.”

“I can’t talk about it. I’m not ready to talk about it.” Ochako was surprised to hear the hint of desperation in her own voice. Even being this direct with Mei felt like too much.

Mei’s expression shuttered for a minute, before going soft and warm. “And no one should make you before you’re ready, but Ochako, let them help - even if you never tell them what they’re helping with.” There was more than a little pleading in the tone of the request, but enough affection and supportiveness to temper it a little.

Somehow, Ochako found herself answering, “I’ll try,” without really knowing how.

“Good.” The tension in Mei’s spine didn’t quite disappear instantly, but she did look relieved at Ochako’s agreement to at least make some effort. “No one deserves to be happy more than you, Ochako.” She stood then, and turned to the door.

Suddenly feeling panicked at the thought of Mei leaving with only that between them, Ochako choked out, “thank you,” in a breathless rush. She may have pushed Mei away with everyone else, but right now she was absurdly grateful that Hatsume Mei had never been the kind of girl to stand for getting pushed around.

Mei paused a the door and turned to say, “any time,” over her shoulder with a barely-there smile. When she was facing the door again, she added more quietly, “I hate when you’re upset. I miss seeing you smile.” Then she was through the door and gone, leaving Ochako alone to think about whether the ice around her heart really was melting or if it was just an illusion.

***

Late that night, too late to be texting for sure, Ochako grabbed her phone and fired off an apology, hoping to get through and hit send before her nerve failed her.

Ochako: I’m sorry.

Ochako: You’re not different. Why would you liking girls matter when I do too?

Ochako: Even tho I haven’t been acting like it lately, I do still want to be your friend, if you’ll forgive me.

Ochako: You’re a good friend and I miss you. That’s what matters and I’m sorry I made you doubt that.

It probably made her a little bit of a coward to do it when she knew Mei would either be sleeping or so deep into the metal innards of something mechanical that she wouldn’t hear her phone, but she doubted she would have had the courage to say most of that if she knew an immediate response was likely. Especially the part about… liking girls…

Despite knowing that about herself for a while now, that was the first time she’d ever actually said those words to anyone. The importance of the moment for her personal growth and the desperation she felt to repair her most important friendship left her feeling shaky. It should have been miserable, but after the pervasive numbness of the last few days, it felt strangely good. Even an adrenaline crash was preferable to that endless expanse of emptiness.

She crawled into bed with a smile on her face and the belief that maybe she could be okay again in her heart. She had the fuzzy, half-asleep thought that she hoped Mei knew she was smiling.

***

Ochako woke the next morning to a couple of texts from Mei for the first time in days. Any ice that might have still been lingering in her chest, clinging stubbornly to her insides was definitely melted by the warmth seeing that name in her notifications again spread through her body.

Mei: Already forgiven. True friendship means being around when someone’s easy to be friends with, and when they’re not.

Mei: I miss you too.

It was the first morning in more than a week where Ochako felt like she could get through the day and do anything more than just go through the motions.

She didn’t go to the library for lunch that day. Or any of the days after.

***

So, the thing was, she was crazy about Mei.

Like, maybe not all the way to in love with her, but more than halfway there. Definitely more than a crush, more than something fleeting or prone to burning out or fading. This was no crush; it was as solid and steady beneath her ribs as her own heartbeat. She had feelings for Mei.

Feeling the truth of it wasn’t like a lightbulb moment epiphany. It wasn’t a slowly creeping, gradually dawning realization either. She simply woke up the morning after they’d patched things up and knew the truth of it in her bones. It felt familiar, like it had been there all along - something she’d been catching a side-view of out the corner of her eye for a while now and was finally looking at head on.

Maybe that’s why, the way this thing felt so settled and established in her psyche, maybe that was the reason it felt like she hadn’t needed to take this thing out and examine it yet. With Mei, she’d blown right past the giddy, fizzy excitement of a crush, past the awkward fumbling of learning another person, through the wall of heat that was building attraction to come out the other side so that now she was here. She was in this slow-rolling, easy push and pull that felt so balanced and so strong that it carried her through day after day without any effort at all.

So. She was crazy about Mei. The only question left was what to do about it.

***

“Mei, would you go on a date with me?”

Oh boy. That was not what she’d been meaning to ask at all. She’d been intending to ask how one goes about gauging another girl’s interest in dating you, how you went about about then asking her out if results to the first inquiry were positive. But they were alone in the workshop, and Mei was in her element, talking excitedly about one of her super cute babies, eyes bright, smile wide. She had a streak of soot on her cheek and a faint sheen of sweat on her skin and she was beautiful. To Ochako’s horror, while she’d been marvelling at the fact that this was only the first time she’d noticed how gorgeous her best friend was, she found that her mouth was opening and those words were tumbling out. Well… the only way out now was through.

Slowly, so achingly, painfully slow and deliberate, Mei set down the wrench in her hand. She stared at Ochako, probing, searching, close to the look she’d given her before that very first lunch. “Why?” She didn’t manage to sound as blank though, the wariness she felt plain in her voice. Or maybe Ochako was just better at reading her now.

“What kind of a question is that?” Ochako snapped. “I like you. Why else would I want to go on a date with you?”

Mei’s lips twisted into a sneer and she leaned her hip against the work table and crossed her arms over chest. “Well forgive me if after months of my sexuality being treated like a curiosity and that I owed everyone around me answers to all their questions about the entirety of the lesbian population that it seems a little sudden for you to ask the only out girl you know on a date weeks after getting your heart broken. Caution seemed prudent.” She stopped to take a deep breath and when she continued, there wasn’t so much anger as there was disappointment shading her words. “As of two days ago you wouldn’t even return my texts Ochako, now you want to go out with me? What am I supposed to think other than this is your way of getting over Jirou?”

Ochako blew out a sigh hard enough to ruffle her bangs. The last of her defensive combativeness bled out of her. “Okay, that’s fair.”

Mei’s nostrils flared and she gave Ochako an unimpressed look. “Yeah? Because I’m not interested in being your rebound and it’s kind of shitty of you to think I would be.”

Ochako leveled a glare at her. “I meant it was fair for you to have doubts, not that it was true.”

Looking tired, Mei sort of… deflated, like a balloon with all the air let out. “So then tell me the truth.”

It was impossible to gather her thoughts or her courage while looking at Mei. Ochako’s eyelids fluttered and she looked down at the table in front of her while she collected herself. The pitted, scorched surface offered no advice or assistance, but she managed to steady herself anyway. She forced her chin back up and met Mei’s expectant gaze. “The truth is - that I really like you. I won’t deny that all this with Kyouka played a part in making me realize my feelings, but it didn’t change them any. If things had been… different… with that, I probably just would have taken longer to figure out I had feelings for you.”

Groaning in frustration, Mei scrubbed her hands over her face. “But you had feelings for her too though. Strong ones too, if the way you were so messed up over her was any indication.”

That… was not the response Ochako had been hoping for. Forcing down her instinct to lash out defensively, Ochako tried to explain as patiently as she could. “I did have feelings for her, maybe even still do to some degree, but I don’t want to go out with her anymore. I want to go out with you because my feelings for you are different.

“Different how?”

Nothing she’d said so far had softened Mei to her, and that wasn’t typical for Mei. Ochako’s best friend was open and bright and wildly happy. There was probably some magical combination of words that Ochako could hit on that would sand down that sharpness and get Mei back to the sweet girl Ochako had fallen for, but she had no idea how long that would take or how much of her heart she’d have to lay out in sacrifice to get there. Her eyes slipped closed and she wrapped her arms around herself. “I- Can you let me know if I even have a chance here, first? I’m not sure I can- Not this soon- I just need-”

Across the room, Mei made a noise like she was choking on air and Ochako’s eyes snapped open and swept up immediately upon hearing it.

Mei was giving Ochako this incredulous look, eyes burning with some sort of barely leashed, wild emotion that wasn’t readily identifiable. “Are you serious right now? Of course you have a chance. Why the hell do you think I’m pushing you so hard about this? Because I’m trying to protect myself too. If I didn’t like you already then it wouldn’t matter if this was just a rebound or some fun or experimentation - there wouldn’t be any risk if that was the case. But there is. There’s a lot of risk. For me.” She sounded angry of course, her tirade aggressive and confrontational, but she also sounded scared.

“O-oh. Um, okay.” Ochako’s brain kept snagging on the fear in Mei’s tone, the shaky note of it that seemed to match the fear in her own voice. She kept thinking about how Mei sounded scared of her, and that was the last thing she ever wanted. She didn’t know what to say, where to go from here. This was nothing like that ill-fated conversation with Kyouka. At the time that had felt so profound, and moving. For all their shy looks, and blushing, and feelings of being overwhelmed, that talk had been easy.

Because half-truths and veiled words were sweet enough to drip off the tongue with ease. This - this brutal honesty in it’s raw and unpolished glory - was hard. Cracking your chest open and baring the most secretive parts of yourself took a type of strength and courage that Ochako hadn’t known she’d need to possess. Mei’s words made it sound like it was possible she returned Ochako’s feelings, but Ochako’s brain was stuck on fear and she didn’t know if opening herself up like that would be worth it.

Mei leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table in a white-knuckled grip. “Different how Ochako, please.” There was a shake to her voice, where it cracked under the strain. Only now was it obvious that she’d been so hard and unwavering before so that she wasn’t crushed under the weight of whatever it was she was afraid of.

“Quieter,” Ochako breathed out. “Which sounds bad, makes it sound like they were weaker, but that’s not it. They were just less noticeable.”

Mei just stared at her, lost and pleading. “Ochako, I don’t- I actually have no idea how to take that.”

Ochako huffed out a humorless laugh. “Yeah, I know. I’m not really sure how to…” This was going all wrong, falling apart. It would be so much easier to just walk away and save herself the embarrassment and the terrifying vulnerability, but Mei was too important for that. Ochako didn’t know what it meant to give up on a fight anyway. “You’re like my favorite comfortable sweater.”

The laugh Mei let out at that was kind of wet and broken sounding. “Not sure that’s any better.”

Gritting her teeth, Ochako didn’t think about the words, she just poured her heart into her throat and let it flow from her tongue. “Just- Stick with me on this for a minute, okay? So, Kyouka was some cute pair of shoes, or, or a trendy skirt. You know, that one you buy because it makes you feel like you fit in and you get excited about wearing it because it makes you feel pretty? But it’s definitely not the most comfortable fitting thing you own, and it’s not right for every occasion, and you know eventually the excitement will fade and you’re just left with something you may or may not want to wear once it stops making your heart race to put it on.” She stopped, breathless with anxiety and heart pounding madly. From the look on Mei’s face, this didn’t seem to be working, but it felt right, Ochako knew it would work and so she forced herself to keep going with it. “Kyouka was - is - cool and funny and sweet and a good friend. She made me feel good about myself, and gave me butterflies in my stomach and it wasn’t like that with you, so-”

To cut off the flow of Ochako’s words, Mei slammed her open palm on the top of the table, making all the tools and parts rattle. “Ochako, I don’t- please don’t make me listen to this,” she whispered, sounding helpless. She was shaking bodily.

Watching the girl that she had so many strong feelings for literally shake apart in front of her, Ochako found the peace and the steady well of determination in her soul. It calmed her, gave her the confidence of purpose; she didn’t have time to be terrified because Mei needed her. Mei needed her strong and sure and ready to fight for her. Ochako slipped off the stool she’d been sitting on and slowly rounded the work table to approach her friend. When she was standing just close enough to reach out and touch Mei if she wanted - and she did, though not just yet - she continued speaking like Mei’s interruption never happened. “It wasn’t like that with you, so I didn’t realize that what I felt for you wasn’t just friendly anymore. But to be fair I’m kinda slow with this stuff. It took me forever to figure out I wasn’t straight.”

Finally releasing her death-grip on the table, Mei turned toward Ochako and let out a hitching little sigh. She wrapped her arms around her waist protectively, like she was expecting a blow. “Fine, go on, whatever. Tell me how being a dumpy sweater is better than being the cute skirt that makes the girl you like feel pretty.”

The grin that split Ochako’s face was one she’d previously only worn during combat, something sharp and primal and victorious. “I don’t know what you’re wearing, but my favorite sweater is not dumpy. It’s soft and comfortable and fits exactly the way I want and I wear it almost every day. I can guarantee every time I do laundry it will be the first thing I reach for to put on from the clean load. It makes me feel good in a way that’s not about up and down flashes of excitement. I feel like I can be myself in that sweater. Mei, you-” She had to pause to swallow around the lump of emotion in her throat. “I want to be the kind of girl who doesn’t need to keep buying trendy clothes because she feels beautiful even in an old, comfy sweater. I think I am that kind of girl, or at least I could be. You make me feel like who I am is enough without having to dress it up at all.”

“H-holy shit, Ochako, you actually did it. You actually made the sweater romantic.” She sounded painfully raw and when she looked up to meet Ochako’s eyes, there were tears glittering in Mei’s pretty eyelashes.

The reality of what was happening here was starting to sink in for Ochako, and the smile she aimed at Mei now was something far more shy and sweet. “Yeah?” she whispered.

“Yeah, I-” Mei interrupted her own point with a laugh that was high and slightly-hysterical sounding. “You know sometimes I’d have these little moments where I’d forget you weren’t already my girlfriend. Just a handful of seconds where you made me so blindingly happy, or all I could think about was stopping everything I was doing to send you a hilarious text just because I knew it would make you smile, and for those seconds I’d forget entirely that feeling like that was too much for just friends and I needed to pull back. It would feel like we’d already made it there and I would forget that we were still in the ‘wishing we were there’ or the ‘trying to get there’ stage.”

Relief and happiness flooded Ochako’s veins, hitting her system like a drug and making her whole body hum with the need to close the distance between them. She only felt daring enough to take one shuffling step forward, but it felt like an accomplishment anyway. “Maybe that’s because we kind of were there already. It’s been easy with you from the start. Which is probably why I didn’t notice that we’ve pretty much been dating for months now.”

Mirroring Ochako’s movements, Mei stepped forward too and leaned into her personal space slightly. A smile stretched over her lips, slow and flirtatious. “Well, I guess that means I don’t have to worry about what kind of girlfriend I’ll be. Apparently I’m so good at it, that I can do it without even trying.”

Ochako let out a breathless, giddy laugh and dared to wrap her arms around Mei’s waist. “Yeah, but I know we both like a challenge so, what do you say we see how good we can get at it when we are trying.”

Heat and affection flared in Mei’s eyes and she wrapped her arms around Ochako as well, going one step further and tugging her close so their bodies pressed together with the embrace. “Yeah. You’re on.”

In the movies, this would be the scene with the kiss - or well, if there were ever any movies with two heroines rather than one and a hero - and Ochako wanted that. Her belly shivered and her whole body felt too hot with how much she wanted that. This didn’t feel like the right time for them though, this new thing between them as fragile as spun sugar. There’d be plenty of time for kissing later anyway, because she didn’t think either of them were going anywhere now. She pushed in closer and laid her cheek on Mei’s shoulder, turning the loose hold into a real hug. She let out a contented sigh.

Maybe Mei was feeling the same way, because she held Ochako close in a way that was comfortable in a way that was undeniably intimate, but made no move to make it something more passionate. They swayed softly together, simply sharing space, and it was clear that being this close wasn’t a stepping stone to something else, it was the whole goal.

Strawberries from her shampoo, a hint of sweat, and always, always the faintest wisp of smoke - it was a smell Ochako hadn’t realized her brain knew as Mei on an instinctive level, and this close, the other girl’s scent was a familiar and inescapable comfort. She breathed in deeply, letting the hug and all the sensations touching Mei overwhelmed her nervous system with soothe the last lingering traces of fear and reservation she felt. “She wasn’t the one I missed you know.”

“What?” The question was quiet and soft around the edges, almost making Mei sound sleepy. She shifted just enough to press her cheek to Ochako’s hair.

Ochako tangled her fingers in the fabric of Mei’s tank top where it stretched over the small of her back and gripped tightly. “We still haven’t really, talked since the party. I think we just haven’t figured out what to say to each other yet. And that feels weird, but I don’t really miss her. The need to just see her isn’t a constant itch beneath my skin. Mei I missed you so much when we weren’t talking.”

Mei hummed in agreement, sounding content enough, but when she finally spoke her voice was a touch raw and unsteady with emotion. “I did too. So let’s never do that again, okay.” She pressed a soft kiss to the crown of Ochako’s head; it felt like she was sealing a promise.

Ochako laughed lightly and dared to press in just a little closer to Mei’s body. “Deal.”

Mei tightened her grip almost reflexively, but seemed content to stay just like that indefinitely, letting the quiet settle around them like a warm blanket again. And then, “does this mean I can call you my super cute baby now?”

Ochako let out a surprised and disbelieving laugh. “Only if you want to die,” she answered with a playful growl. She didn’t bother to lift her head from Mei’s shoulder. She couldn’t think of anywhere else she’d rather be.